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Sunday, 9 April 2017

#100AfricanWomenWriters: 6. Grace Ogot



One of Kenya’s most well-known writers, Grace Ogot was said to be one of the first African women to have fiction published in English with two short stories published in 1963 and 1964 - these were 'The Year of Sacrifice' (retitled as 'The Rain Came' when it was later published in 'Land Without Thunder' in 1968) in Black Orpheus and 'Ward Nine' in Transition respectively.


 Source: Google Images

The story behind Ogot getting into writing goes back to her attending a conference at Makerere University College in Uganda when she was about to start as a nursing sister (also at Makerere). At the conference, 

Ogot was both disappointed and challenged when it became clear that book exhibits from East Africa were lacking ... Along with other East Africans present ... Ogot was determined to change the situation. Having read her short story, 'A Year of Sacrifice' at the Makerere conference, Ogot did another draft and submitted it to the journal Black Orpheus, which published it in 1963.

The same year Ogot got her first short story published, Mackenzie Finley writes about a television series being developed by Dennis Duerden (Transcription Centre in London), Henry Doré (National Educational Television Centre in New York) and South African writer Lewis Nkosi featuring leading African artists and writers of late-colonial and early-independent Africa. As part of the project, Duerden corresponded with Ogot - the only woman writer whose life and work the series intended to explore. 

As part of this new series on June 22, 1963, Duerden began corresponding with Ogot via letters, and Finley provides a summary of what transpired between them
Duerden’s first letter was accompanied by a questionnaire, which Ogot was requested to complete. The questionnaire, developed by Nkosi and Duerden, was intended to gather biographical information about the writer before Duerden and his team began production on the film series. Ogot returned the questionnaire with reticent answers.
Consequently, Duerden wrote a follow-up letter to Ogot, requesting that she include greater biographical detail in her answers. In his letter, Duerden endorsed the value of the television project, hoping its worth would inspire Ogot to be more forthcoming. Whether or not Ogot was convinced of the project’s value, she filled out the questionnaire the second time with significantly more revealing information.

As Finley goes on to write, the letter's also offer insights into Ogot’s 'values, interests, and intellectual life.'
For example, we learn that her primary literary influences included the short story 'How Much Land Does a Man Require' by Leo Tolstoy, 'The Dark Child' by Camara Laye, 'Mary Slessor of Calabar' by William Pringle Livingstone, and 'Things Fall Apart' by Chinua Achebe. Ogot elaborated on the significance of these works in her life. Tolstoy’s short story, for instance, prompted her to write: “If the whole world read this story, perhaps there would be no war.” Regarding the biography of Mary Slessor by Livingstone, Ogot explained, “If anything at all, this book had a lot to do with the shaping of my life and the choice of my career.” Seeking to emulate the positive impact that Slessor had on African society, Ogot “became a nurse … I regarded this as an expression of that feeling of gratitude in me towards Mary Slessor of Scotland who did so much for my Africa.”

A few years after the series, Ogot's first novel, The Promised Land was published in 1966 by East African Publishing House and focused on Luo emigration; while her second novel, The Graduate, was published in 1980. Ogot also published the short story collection Land Without Thunder (1968), The Other Woman (1976) and The Island of Tears (1980). 




A nurse by profession (Ogot trained in Uganda, and worked in England, Uganda and Kenya), Ogot was born Emily Akinyi in 1930 in the Nyanza district of Kenya. Her writing was heavily influenced by her her father - an Anglican who taught at a local missionary school, and often read stories from the bible to her as a child; and her grandmother, who told her stories and legends of the Luo people. Ogot's writing also drew on her experience as a nurse - as several of her works focus on the conflict between traditional and Western medicine; and there was also influences from her husband - the Kenyan historian Bethwell Ogot whose had interests in the oral tradition and history of Luo's. Her husband also encouraged her writing, as he 'insisted that my letters to him were not letters at all, but poetry'.

A snippet of Lindfors' Interview with Grace Ogot. Source: World Literature in English

Still, Ogot initially struggled to get her stories published, as she explains in an interview with Bernth Lindfors on trying to get her creative writing published

I remember taking some of my short stories to the Manager of East African Literature Bureau, including the one which was later published in Black Orpheus. They really couldn't understand how a Christian woman could write such stories, involved with sacrifices, traditional medicines and all, instead of writing about Salvation and Christianity. Thus, quite a few writers received no encouragement from colonial publishers who were perhaps afraid of turning out radical writers critical of the colonial regime. 

Ogot it seems was also an extremely busy woman - in the early 1960s (1960 - 1961) she worked as a broadcaster, scriptwriter and editor for the BBC Africa Service in London on the programme 'London Calling East and Central Africa', and was subsequently granted her own weekly radio programme in Luo. Upon returning to Kenya, Ogot initially worked as a community development officer and as principal of the Women's Training Centre in Kisumu; was also a public relations officer for the Air India Corporation of East Africa in Nairobi. Ogot was not only a founding member, and subsequent chair of the Writers' Association of Kenya, but in 1975 she served as a Kenyan delegate to the UN General Assembly, in1976 she was selected to act as a member of Kenya's UNESCO delegation, in 1983 was appointed as a member of the country's Parliament (one of a few women to do so), and in 1988 became the Assistant Minister of Culture and Social Services (a position she held until 1992).



Grace Ogot being interviewed by American journalist Lee Nichols in 1974 for a Voices of America radio broadcast. The transcripts were later published in 1981 in the book 'Conversations with African Writers' Image Source: Daily Nation

Grace Ogot passed away in 2015, but throughout her life played a prominent role in Kenya's political, economic and literary history in her work as a writer, nurse, member of Parliament, government minister and UN representative. 

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