Memoirs are natural data banks and society’s historical journals

Monday February 15 2010


Whenever I’ve met Marjorie Oludhe-Macgoye, I’ve always made reference to her yet-to-be-published autobiography, A Half Witted Life.

I came to know about the autobiography as I was reading through Nyarloka’s Gift, a book by Roger Kurtz, which was published three years ago.

In the book, Kurtz critically takes us through the life and works of Oludhe-Macgoye, who first came to Kenya as a missionary bookseller in 1954, fell in love with the country and its people, married a Kenyan and became one of the forerunners in Kenya’s literary history.

With a literary career spanning decades and having seen and therefore learnt a lot about writing, a book on her life and career would naturally inspire aspiring writers and add to the corpus of material on reading and writing.

I also remember prodding, over lunch, a prominent Kenyan literary editor to write his autobiography, a few days to the launch of James Currey’s book, Africa Writes Back, in Nairobi last year.

Back then, I spoke with Ugandan poet Laban Erapu who was in Nairobi for the launch of Currey’s book, and I told him how great it was that Currey, one of the fathers of the African Writers Series, had written a book detailing the long journey towards African literary history for the benefit of researchers, scholars, future writers and editors.

It is a theme I have repeated whenever I have met anyone who was part of the shaping of African literary history.

A few days ago, I repeated the same to Austin Bukenya, the author of The Bride, and in my mostly email communications with Taban Lo Liyong, Meja Mwangi and other “older” East African writers.

The fact that Ngugi wa Thiong’o is writing his memoirs (the first instalment is already published) shortly after Wole Soyinka’s You Must Set Forth at Dawn and in the year when my most favourite writer VS Naipaul’s authorised biography, The World is What it Is by Patrick French rolled off the press, shows that this is the season of literary autobiographies.

I’m a great fan of autobiographies.

For, apart from letting us see the unfolding of history through the events in the lives of the people who shaped history, they tell you a lot about the person behind the mask that celebrities are wont to cover themselves with from the often-meddlesome public gaze.

Autobiographies are a crucial strategy for narrating to the nation and giving direction to the future of the country.

Such inspirational works like The Narrative of Fredrick Douglass and W. E. B Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk have contributed immensely to the advancement of the struggle for Africans in the Diaspora.

In The Narrative, Douglass regales us with the ironical twists in history where children of white Americans helped him, a key black abolitionist in the struggle against slavery, when he moved from South to North America before the civil war.

They taught him how to read and write, which really helped him in championing the rights of African-Americans.

In Souls of Black Folk, as seen for example in an article entitled Of Booker T Washington and Others, Du Bois shows how the issue of education shaped the struggle for emancipation of African-Americans.

The reason I have chosen as examples works of Africans in the Diaspora is because the war against racism is bearing fruit, which is why Barack Obama today is the president of the US.

For Kenya, the dearth of autobiographical works is appalling; especially for a country that has a rich and eventful history.

Every death of a prominent figure in Kenya’s 50-year history who has not written memoirs, is the death of knowledge.

Granted, Kenya’s history, like the history of many countries in the world is replete with tales of corruption, injustices abuse of power and other crimes.

One then gets the feeling that there is a conspiracy of silence.

Therefore Andrew Morton’s Moi: The Making of an African Statesman, Babafemi Badejo’s biography of Raila Odinga, The Enigma and Waithaka Waihenya’s biography of Lazarus Sumbeiywo and many others published recently, Kenya’s history received a boon even though not everyone agrees with what the books say.