By Daisy Nandeche Okoti
Published December 15, 2015
She came to Kenya to ‘win the souls’ of the country that was then a colony of the then vast British Empire to Jesus Christ. Sixty-one years later, as the curtains fell on her life in post-independence Kenya on December 1, 2015 she left behind ‘culture-appropriate’ messages to continue ‘evangelising’ generations of Kenyans beyond the 21st Century.
This is our tribute to Marjorie King Oludhe Macgoye, the English Luo writer (also known as Nyarloka or daughter from yonder) who, though having originally come from Southampton in England to work as a lay missionary in the Church Missionary Society bookshop in Nairobi in 1954, not only found love, married and settled in Kenya but also ended up shaping the minds of people in her adopted country through writing.
Marjorie King, who is believed to have been born around 1928, married Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a medical doctor from western Kenya whose people and culture she adopted as her own in a fashion not unlike that of Ruth of the Bible. This new culture was to influence the novels, short stories, essays, poems and children’s stories she would pen in a career spanning six decades.
Perhaps to immerse herself better in her husband’s family, she moved with him to Kisumu from Nairobi, learnt to speak Dholuo, absorbed Luo culture and, when Kenya attained independence from Britain in 1963, opted for Kenyan citizenship.
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s ability to fit into the culture of her adoptive community and using it to convey vital information and reality is perhaps one of the singular things that Kenya might not ever get from any other writer after her demise in December 2015.
The works of the white Kenyan known as Nyarloka address issues that are very pertinent to the needs of contemporary society and the world at large. She seems to have lived well ahead of her time. Migration, one of the themes she tackles, for example, continues to be a thorny issue in today’s increasingly mobile world. People are increasingly being called upon to come up with the means through which to navigate the challenges presented by globalization that is characterized by mobility as people look for better prospects in life. Macgoye herself appears to have laid down her life as an example of how people who move across continents and settling down among cultures that are different from their own could live to minimise conflict.
Intermarriage among people of not just different cultures but races as well being one of the consequences of globalisation in the world today, Macgoye, in her 1994 novel, Homing In, appears to address the realities of such relationships; both the challenges and the triumphs of such marriages.
In Coming to Birth, the writer crafts the coming to age story of a young woman who has to overcome various socio-cultural obstacles in her growth into adulthood and parallels this to the history of Kenya in the years leading up to and after its independence. This makes the book both a work of fiction and history; in other words, historical fiction. It won the Sinclair Prize for a novel of social and political significance and was selected by the Kenya’s Ministry of Education as a Literature in English set book for the Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education examination.
Freedom Song, one of Macgoye’s poems that laments the plight of domestic servants known as ayahs or house girls in Kenya with the refrain ‘Atieno yo’, has been turned into a song called Sandore by Nairobi-based urbanative singer from Kisumu known as Susanna Owiyo.
Some of the other writings of the mother of George, Francis, Phyllis and Lawrence include a detective story set in Kisumu titled Victoria and Murder in Majengo; a women’s empowerment novel titled The Present Moment; a novel on the struggles of Jewish settlers in Kenya’s Rift Valley area called A Farm Called Kishinev; two novels in which she explored the effects of HIV/Aids on an African village and urban life titled Homing In and Chira; a trilogy for children focused on the adventures of the “Black Hand” gang ; a transition from colonial to independent Kenya study called The Story of Kenya: a Nation in the Making; and The Composition of Poetry.
While A Farm Called Kishinev (winner of Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2007, Homing In emerged the second best book in the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1985.
Other titles of Marjorie Macgoye’s that are unlikely be forgotten even as her remains are interned are Song of Nyarloka and Other Poems and Street Life.