Tuesday, December 1, 2015

So strong a spirit, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye (MOM), Kenyan poet and novelist, leaves the sound of her typewriter ringing in my ear

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, author, 1928- this morning, 1.12.2015
Kenya and Afrika have lost, today, a great hero of our times, a silent and contemplative novelist and poet of immense value to the world. 

Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, MOM.  Her typewriter still rings the ´return´ push in my ear because I saw her determination to build us, to help everywhere. I saw her type. She was humble enough to write letters to me after I left Kenya. She added a four liner by hand, to give the ever loved human touch. A gem. I want to pay tribute to her immediately, even as later, I shall write better on her life and help in Kenya. She was known as Mother or Gem (pronounced soft g not as in get) of Min Gem, the place where her late husband Oludhe Macgoye came from. Her rural home. She mainly lived in Nairobi.
In 1954, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye lived in Pumwani, Eastlands. 

The UK, she was bornon October 21st, 1928 in Southampton, is a land Marjorie left and just lived. She is/was always just our dear MOM, as she used to sign up on some documents. In 1963 the family visited Marjorie´s father in England (Marjorie´s mother died soon after she came to Kenya) using a small unexpected legacy.

There were no ethnic origin or other issues with her. In other words, don´t even begin to think of difference with the locals. Simply put, just a life... almost hidden in some ways, and boldly written out in other forms, and that is what shakes one. Out of that ´silence´, so much streams, giving life.

In 1960, she married Daniel Oludhe Macgoye and  a few years after their marriage, Daniel was posted to the Alupe Leprosarium on the Ungandan/Kenyan border. This was more to do with unusual people, she told me in an interview.

MOM was familiar with not being seen as right, not fitting, for these kind of marriages were not accepted. MOM is a strong spirit and she never dropped her gaze on social matters. She recorded the history of Kenya and lived it, in its many languages and transitions of power. One can read that in all her poems in Song of Nyarloka and Other poems. She, for most of us, ceased to be the one from a foreign land or from abroad, once one read her works. 

She nurtured in them her spiritual growth for a society she wished justice, cohesion and strength especially for the poor. She watched the Union Jack go down on December 12th 1963 and she lived and worked in Shauri Moyo, Huruma and other east Nairobi zones that are alive in her works. Her own life became a challenge for the society of her times. 

How could people from different continents make a home? Especially this one and that one... black and white issues. But she lived happily also in Tanzania for a few years. It was in 1971 when she left Kisumu with the children and went to Dar es Salaam. There she helped re-organize the university bookshop. Shen enjoyed the challenging job in Tanzania. In 1975, the family re-united in Nairobi as Daniel was still working in Kisumu. 

MOM was the organiser of readings with Jonathan Kariara, Okot P´bitek and sometimes Taban Lo Liyong at the SJ Moore bookshop which was then on Government Road.  I could tell she loved those days. She enjoyed the memories of sharing readings and I got the impression I could feel the warmth of this group from the distant past. 

But I touched her grief when she spoke about Johnathan Kariara´s last days in hospital. It was there so often. She was a strong sorrowful and hopeful mother. She visited Jonathan Kariara in hospital and chatted. 

Marjorie was close to those who suffer, a thing not to be taken for granted from what I have seen with artists. She wrote for many who were assassinated and her poem for Archbishop Luwum is outstanding. Bishop Janani Luwum, 1922 - 1977, was killed in Uganda during the reign of Idi Amin. The Anglican church considers him a martyr. He was arrested on February 16th and he died shortly after.

Reading her poem in memory of Okot p´Bitek, Omera from the anthology Boundless Voices one gets to the core of this compassionate closeness which I wish for her now from us. 

Her tone pierces like a sword. How Marjorie´s soul enters into his tragedy is sacred, the poem a shrine of love, reverence and hope. It is a portrait in color and so visual:


So they have got you down at last, Omera
unmanned, incombatant, silenced, constrained,
bound in the noisy dark where small things burrow
and leaves that once waved high proudly moulder
So may the night be fierce for you with stars
blazing, with prowlers beautified in power

Where homesteads crumbled, let again the pumpkin
take root and bind the soil, speaking beasts, singers
and sinuous dancers share all secrets with you --
tell how we, in the shadowy city, loved you.

She loved her typewriter and writing was a passionate vocation for her. She banged on it long after computers came, and with joy. Failing sight hardly deterred her. 

She was concerned with the new abandon of letters and documents everywhere... She warned me about writing all my thesis on the new word processors at that time because the risk of losing information that way was greater. Her position next to the window which a few meters below gave way to the market and facing some family pictures particularly one with her husband said a lot about her. It was always great to find her there. She answered all my questions and offered me to take and read ... as well as drink or eat something whenever we visited. 

And she was practical, offered opportunities she heard about selflessly. She introduced me to friends of hers with great pride. I shall miss her for she was in my life at a time when many could not even begin to understand my journey. She gave me a book I still read, The Great Loneliness. 

She was, for most of us, the first and only originally European person who spoke fluent Dholuo and had no problems relating at many levels. She also mastered Kiswahili. 

What do I mean? People traveling from far and passing through Nairobi stopped by. No complaints. Marjorie went to her kitchen and brought out something. I so miss our teas... made in her kitchen, watching the kettle boil and she not one to expect to be waited upon and so eager to serve, one had to beat her at her own game and she was fast!

Young and poor people felt her alike. She stood for Kenya with her great poem "A Freedom Song", which has made Atieno´s unhappy plight awaken consciences. Atieno yo...! Atieno is a domestic worker for relations who mistreat her a terribly pervasive situation we know well in Kenya and other parts of the world. And yet the song is a deep song of the plight of the poor and Kenya and those who lord it over the Miriams of this world. The woman to whom she dedicates a poem, For Miriam....hard, cracked knuckles, and voices often muted, muffled...

When I had a few days in Kenya last year I made sure I visited CũcũMarjorie as my son and so many call her. We read to her the translation of A Freedom Song which Helmuth A. Niederle had made and published in Podium a copy of which she had received. She was nodding happily. 

Then she remarked how so many people in Kenya, tell her how great her poem is and YET, she said, some of them did not stop mistreating Atienos! I quoted the German version here. I studied her and will always reflect on her works and thoughts. I know her vision can ´build´people, a region and inculcate changing ways or perceptions. Marjorie´s life should teach Kenyans to overcome tribalism among other things and that... even better than Pope Francis who visited Kenya a few days ago. Kenya does not lack, it fails to harness. 


MOM was never one to bow out or pretend to see rosy pictures. IF there was anybody I wanted to see smiling about the social situation in Kenya it was her. I did not want her to hear that we had huge ethnic differences and tensions, even abuses. 

She was very happy to see me and actually, not knowing when I would see her again, I asked her to bless us, and she obliged. She knew what I meant.  She touched our foreheads and blessed my future before I left.  

 MOM saw defends Atieno and makes all reflect and hate abuse ... Atieno sleeps on a sack, wakes up early  and washes dishes, plucks the chicken, is left in charge of family and suffers incest and dies of post partum bleeding... Atieno yo,  the sorrowful call and refrain became like a national anthem to some of us.

Author Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye was firstly an intellectual, a hard working woman in love with writing but also, in a discreet way, loving God the Creator very much, and confessing her faith in the Anglican community. 

She is/was a precious mother and grandmother. She did not like to see children left alone even for a few days by their parents. I remember how clearly she expressed herself on that, with details. She knew what justice and truth mean, and she did not waver in pointing that out. 

We shall miss Marjorie for so many reasons. I enjoyed her works, especially the earlier ones, when I wrote the first masters research on her in the University of Nairobi: Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye and the  quest for Freedom: A Study of Coming to Birth, Song of Nyarloka and Other Poems. But far beyond her works was her conscientious self. She lived by the moral tenets she pointed out to others.

I was lucky to see her and spend time with her so often and as often as I wanted, I could pass by her house, like many others and share a word or two. As long as she was at home, Marjorie would always open the door with a smile. It did not matter that the appointment was sudden or one was just checking on her. She even told me how to tell if she was at home from far. What to look out for.

Min Gem, Mother of Gem, as they called her in Nyanza was just that. I would like to call her Min Kenya mainly because all the signs are there and she is more. I say that as I remember how she once called me to write about a poor sickly man who had fought for freedom in Mau Mau and who was living in a squalid shack and collecting garbage to make a coin and how she fed him. She was full of compassion. 

I wrote the article but Marjorie knows that it was not published because the editor said that the newspapers did not want to carry stories like that one and the emphasis was on a certain ethnic group, from which the editor, JM, then also came from. We worried together about this self censorship. 

But more important was how the people who sold in kiosks around Nyayo Market rushed to open the gate for one, once one mentioned CũcũMarjorie. Truly they loved her and would slide the lock easily and safely for visitors whenever there was no one to open the gate to the block of flats
where she lived. People who do not know Nairobi may fail to read the big sign there... 

MOM was never one to fear them or think of being attacked. Why would she? She was just one more. She told me so. Just ask them for Mama George, she told me on my first visit, and they will let you in. Or, she said, and I still have the notes I scribbled on a review she had made on my writing just ask them where is Mzungu... she did not understand that as offensive.

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