Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye: Kenya’s literary enigma

Friday December 11 2015

Kenyan novelist and poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye on the October 16, 2012. PHOTO | FILE

Kenyan novelist and poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye on the October 16, 2012. PHOTO | FILE 

By JOHN SIBI-OKUMU

There are many who knew Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye far longer and more intimately than I did and are, therefore, better qualified to write about her. However, my explanation for doing so is that, if I were to name five people who have most influenced my life, she would be one of them.

When a loved one dies, the mind begins to process shared experiences, very randomly: I first met Marjorie when I was an undergraduate student at the University of Nairobi, 42 years ago.

She then ran the SJ Moore bookshop on what is now Moi Avenue. Marjorie talked to customers, like me, about the books she was selling. That’s how our friendship began.

She organised poetry readings in the bookshop loft. I read out some unremarkable juvenilia at one of them. But she retained copies of the originals in her elaborate filing system and returned them to me…. 30 years later! That was, for me, a telling act of affirmation.

I recall a celebration of the life of one of Marjorie’s most cherished friends, the editor-poet Jonathan Kariara, at the Alliance Francaise. In the foyer, we exhibited some of Jonathan’s poems in arresting calligraphy, paintings from his personal collection and, in the background, we played the music of his favourite singer, Nina Simone.

Once inside the full auditorium, friends, including Marjorie, rose to give tributes and to read Jonathan’s poems. It was a lovely evening. In a similar vein, I can see Marjorie reciting some of her poems, entirely from memory, at the Goethe Institut, with her son Francis providing musical interludes on the piano.

HER FAMILY LIFE

Progressively, I came to know the rest of her family: her reserved husband Dan and their other children Phyllis, George and Lawrence. And, much later, her children’s children.

After Marjorie had nursed Dan during his final illness, from stomach cancer, I remember a petrifying drive back home in blinding rain, having dropped off some mourners at the end of a lengthy vigil.

Then came the vicarious pleasure of having someone I knew remain petite of body but grow larger and larger, of reputation: Marjorie, winner of the Sinclair Prize for Literature with Coming to Birth, which became a set text on the national school syllabus.

Marjorie, winner of Jomo Kenyatta Literature Foundation prizes for her novels Homing In and A Farm Called Kishinev. And, apart from novels and verse, including the acclaimed anthology Song of Nyarloka, a response to her other ace crony, the Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek.

Marjorie also wrote children’s books, a general history of Kenya, and such treatises as Moral Issues in Kenya. For her, one’s moral being deserved to be a prime concern. She was now being hailed as the “mother of Kenyan literature.”

Nevertheless, I had already worked out, long before, that Marjorie was an exceptional human being and, consequently, I contrived to record as much about her as I could, for posterity. Whence, the 3,000 word newspaper profile of her which I wrote under the pseudonym, Mwenye Sikio. And, afterwards, our tender exchange on The Summit, the television interview programme that I once hosted.

All told, my most recurrent memories are of visits to her ascetic home in Nairobi’s Ngara estate.

More often than not, I would arrive unannounced on a Sunday afternoon, secure in the knowledge that she would be there, after church. We would chat for hours on end, fuelled by black coffee, about the state of the world, the state of our country, prevailing literary feuds, my playwriting, my doubts about being a good husband and father, everything.

In 2002, Marjorie agreed for me to record some of these conversations, with the specific focus on her books, towards an edited publication or documentary film. The project petered out after we had filled up three 90-minute cassettes. So, perhaps, nothing will come of it. However, it is now a teary delight to re-listen to those tapes and to hear Marjorie come to life.

HER LIFE

Marjorie was a fervent Christian who was never “in your face” about her faith. Rather, she lived it. She was accommodating of alternative beliefs and orientations but impatient with crooked thinking. (“You are not surprised that we have not succeeded in splitting the atom yet, if this is the rate at which we are progressing.”)

She herself was forceful in defence of her own stance, (‘I am not a feminist’), yet respectful of divergent views. She was not prudish and, when amused, was capable of a girlish giggle or raucous cackle.

Above all, Marjorie was the Great Encourager. She encouraged me, personally, through moments of deep depression. She supplied copious notes, upon request, on my creative output, either in her minute, sloping handwriting or banged out on a traditional typewriter.

For my first and, as yet, only published drama, Role Play, A Journey Into the Kenyan Psyche, I supplied the dedication: “To Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, who cheered all the while.” And I know that she encouraged many others as well. Not for Marjorie the covert spite for the kindred spirit.

I hadn’t been to see her for a month or so and I remember thinking: “I must go and see Marjorie today.” And I did, at tea time on a habitual Sunday. I found her crouched, in a daze, on the edge of a living room sofa, surrounded by relations and other visitors.

I tried to relive the past by bringing up my play-in-progress. But she was simply not up to it. True to self, she was more anxious to know about my wife and two sons.

The dreaded phone call did come, from Francis, two days later, in the late morning of Tuesday, December 1: Marjorie had had breakfast and been bathed by Gladys, her loving caregiver before asking to have a lie down in her bedroom. Lawrence had gone in to check on her, once, twice. But on the third inspection, she was no longer breathing. She had died peacefully, in her sleep.

“Way to live, Marjorie! Way to go!”

John Sibi-Okumi is a Nairobi-based author, teacher, actor-playwright and broadcaster.