•MOM was a literary scavenger drawing stimulation from diverse sources!
• Despite being born too late--her favored place--the pre-modern Victorian salon, Marjorie was, in the sanguine imagery of daughter Phyllis
For decades from 1973 until her death in 2015, Dana was among Marjorie’s closest friends and privileged confidante. She listened and learned as she observed Marjorie give reign to a steady stream of poetry and, prose in the form of fiction, history, letters to editors of various local newspapers and a yet-to-be-published memoir entitled A Half-Witted Life. As Macgoye’s literary canon has been well- explicated by Professor Roger Kurtz in his unauthorized biography entitled Nyarloka’s Gift (2005), in this essay, Marjorie’s art held as a mirror to her interior world is freshly observed.
Is there anyone alive on East Africa’s literary landscape who can ever forget Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, for decades an indomitable British-Kenyan intellectual presence without equal? From her giddy heights on Mount Nairobi, she dominated Kenya’s writing world like a colossus?
Centrally positioned in easily accessible Ngara, Marjorie’s sanctuary was outside time; an oasis of intellectual discourse of great quality where British tea in great quantity and freshly-baked cake were served in an ambiance of gracious, low-key style. Within a small, walled-in garden cut off from the surrounding perils of street life, individuals from the high and mighty often met the abusively underserved. Signing her name as MOM, a conceit she enjoyed, Marjorie was the High Priestess of Moral Uprightness, living simply and modestly among favored writers, poets, politicos, musicians, artists, and even the occasional sex worker. Here esteemed political realities of ujamaa vijijini, Tanzania’s late President Julius Nyerere’s social concept of property were expressed freely, offsetting prevailing conventional wisdom enforced by late President Daniel arap Moi’s own in-house police force called the Special Branch. Beyond the era’s inscrutable politics (from l979 to 2003) were fleeting moments of contentment with Miss Marjorie as in-house professor of literature and language. With treasured works of TS Eliot, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley and Gunther Grass, visual arts in Timothy Brooke, Joanie Waite and Peterson Kamwathi awakening us to targeted excellence of local artists, or exquisite sounds of a violin and piano concerto by Johannes Brahms heard on her piano, we felt happy to be alive.
In this quiet interior of tranquility and transcendence, a table clothed in petit point embroidery set against a piano stacked with musical scores plus metronome, plus bulging bookcase of fiction, poetry and history, one remembers framed photos of: Phyllis, George, Francis and Lawrence; her children Also there was a snapshot of forgotten heroes of the lndependence Movement…Bildad Kaggia alongside fellow freedom fighter cum, trade unionist, Maina Macharia summarizing her own unambiguous stand on Britain’s imperial travesties against a former colony.
Drawing inspiration from many Sources!
Divine Inspiration may be an attractive thought, but like all writers, MOM was a literary scavenger drawing stimulation from diverse sources! Despite being born too late--her favored place--the pre-modern Victorian salon, Marjorie was, in the sanguine imagery of daughter Phyllis, her own classroom for delving into the Kenyan psyche.
Marjorie lived large! With self-creation as undeniably intrinsic to anyone pursuing the life of the mind, MOM constructed her own colorful tapestry of idiosyncratic imagery. Within a Euro-African civilizational frame, she painted her own eccentric thought-world contoured carefully around class and near-color-blind inclusivity. As a committed public intellectual and political activist on the Left, she held forth with exacting erudition against often tedious academic panegyrics heard around her. Attending University of Nairobi seminars, any mention of new development paradigms, sustainable growth models or even misconceived notions on Kenya’s colonial state and aftermath, she cut through the drivel and hypocrisy of Kenya’s politically-correct intellectuals. In this solipsistic world of quixotic idealism, Marjorie cared far more what she thought over what others felt about her. As for decades among MOM’s closest friends and privileged confidante--I felt like Sancho Panza accompanying the Sage of la Mancha…wondering what would happen next!
For Marjorie, mashujaa (heroes) Bildad Kaggia and friend Maina Macharia were among the few of rare integrity! As part of Kenya’s renowned resistance embodied in the heroism of the Kapenguria Six, Kaggia had chosen the hard life of a grist miller in Makutano. As MP from Kandara Constituency, Kaggia refused a land grant from he State before his/her constituents each received their fair share. Having also “tasted the bitterness of the color bar, racial discrimination and segregation,” Maina Macharia, fit and sharp at age 91, remembers a Nairobi where “shops, cinema houses, hotels and toilets were classified as whites only; Africans and dogs not allowed.”
As labor organizers, by l949 Kaggia, Maina, and others had formed the Clerks and Commercial Workers Union. Maina also joined political organizer Fred Kubai in the latter’s Transport and Allied Workers Union. After Sikh activist Makhan Singh had established The Labor Trade Union Congress of East Africa, by l950 he with others, had organized Nairobi’s largest General Strike to date--a transformative event marked by Singh’s daring declaration of Kenya Colony’s independence. Makhan Singh was rewarded with eleven and a half years in prison, the longest serving political prisoner in Kenya’s history!
For MOM, Kenyan writers lived in Kenya! She lamented some of the nation’s best minds exchanging intellectual autonomy for where the money was: politics, NGOS and flights abroad to greener pastures. She would have seen recent Nobel Laureate in Literature Abdulrazak Gurnah as a British writer of Zanzibari-origin and wonder why he had not returned to Zanzibar to share his literary skills with students either at the well-established University of Dar es Salam--where MOM ran the University Bookshop-- or at the University of Zanzibar!
As one is never a prophet in one’s own province, Gurnah needed Zanzibar more than Zanzibar needed him! For Marjorie, overseas migrants ensconced in another nation accruing the benefits of citizenship--in Gurnah’s case, Britain’s welfare state—can never be considered East African writers. Anglophone Africanists, those two-year wonders who parachuted into atmospheric Nairobi to practice Kiswahili and/or mix with locals to further in academic careers abroad were other categories of the unloved.
Playing cards, Cooking and Knitting
Marjorie loathed activities solely attributed to women. Though not a feminist, her life projected archetypical qualities: independence of mind, courage to air bitter truths and compassion for the underserved. Loathing gendered self-promotion, she viewed the l960s American-dominated women’s movement as a middle-class implant. The current Kenyan practice of Women’s Representatives as special pleading would never have received her vote.
Marjorie was a man’s woman, generally preferring the company of intelligent, good-looking men. In addition to her three sons, among those closest to her were dazzling actor and playwright, John Sibi- Okumu, Malawian poet and novelist, David Rubadiri and Maasai lawyer, poet and first blind judge, Imaana Laibuta. For years the late Jonathan Kariara, CEO of the Jomo Kenyatta Foundation loomed large. Marjorie also admired American academic Roger Kurtz who on a visit, happened by chance to buy her books. Enjoying a hearty laugh, Marjorie would remark slyly: “‘Not that Kurtz!” explaining that Roger was no relation to Joseph Conrad’s (1898) character-in his novel Heart of Darkness -- exposing European malfeasance in the Belgian Congo.
It was Kurtz who elevated Marjorie to international prominence. For it was he, as Professor of African Literature at the State University of New York (Brockport), who explicated her texts for the wider Anglophone audience. Written over decades, among the best of her output are: Poems from East Africa (1971); Murder in Majengo (l972); Street Life (1987); Victoria (l993); Homing In (1994);Chira (l997); Make it Sing &other Poems (1998), A Farm Called Kishinev (2005) and Rebmann (2014).
Nyarloka: An Outsider’s Art
As a woman of two worlds--in emotional as well as physical exile from her native Great Britain--MOM faced many wholly unforeseen challenges. Calling herself nyarloka, the Jaluo vernacular description of an outsider portrayed in her eponymous poem, she came to accept that she would never be considered as either a fully-fledged citizen or ever understand the kamikaze goings-on in her adopted country. The unacknowledged template for MOM’s self-identity was Albert Camus’ noiresque novel of the same name. In his cautionary tale published in l942, Camus explores the life of a man who unknowingly commits a senseless crime, sits through his trial and hears himself condemned to death. Although Camus’ story is an example of extreme alienation--the angst of Kafkaesque nightmares--Marjorie often viewed Kenya’s socio-political goings-on with utter bewilderment. Yet a whole array of subject matter offered freely on a plate just by being here was hers to observe, make sense of and contribute to. It was the perfect gift for any wordsmith.
Son Francis termed his mother “an old-fashioned writer.” What he meant was that Marjorie’s tastes coincided with the established familiarities of her own English social milieu; her thematic concerns grounded in the present moment with a novel of the same name rather than textual identification with either the magical realism of the Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri, Jean-Paul Sartre’s French existentialism or postmodernism. Just as she lived in the characters she wrote about, MOM imbibed the habits of thought of those around her. In the African tradition as a Jaluo wife in Gem, she came to see herself as one. Perhaps even more amazingly, beyond her fluency in easy-to-learn Bantu Kiswahili, Macgoye became so fluent in Nilotic Dholuo that she helped others in its translation.
By 2005 Kurtz had acclaimed Marjorie’s novel, Coming To Birth (1986) as “Macgoye’s most successful work in terms of readership and recognition.” As winner of Britain’s Sinclair Prize and later set text for Kenya’s Form II students, MOM interrogated Kenya’s freedom movement on several levels. In a lightly-veiled subtext on a young woman’s growth to maturity and birth of a child, she invokes, metaphorically-speaking, the coming of Kenya’s independence. Left unsaid was her own coming to birth in a country where she laid roots, found a husband, became a citizen, raised a family and wrote.
We are in our History and our History is in Us
Reflections of her life-train refracted through the prism of her art reveal only glimpses of her private life. Old photos depict a solidly middle- class family. Born and raised in Southampton, southern England, Marjorie King, born on 21 October, l928, was a prized only child. Her early life was shaped by an adoring father, Richard Thomas King, who was dockside in l912, viewing the maiden voyage of the ill-fated cruise ship Titanic. Like her father, she was a devout Christian wholly invulnerable to the power of money. An earnest follower of British politics, MOM was an avid supporter of Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, remembered for establishing free health care throughout the British Isles. In a country where upper-middle-class speech was de rigueur for politicos regardless of party preference, Bevin known for dropping his h’s: see you in ‘Eaven. Marjorie’s even-handed mimicry of Bevin was inimitable!
Growing up in the shadow of the Second World War, MOM earliest memories were of war. The l940-1941 German air-strikes against the city of London with the entire UK under threat of Nazi occupation today recalled as the London Blitz still brings horror to old-timers. The heroism of 850 British fishermen crossing the English Channel in their small boats to rescue British soldiers stranded at Dunkirk, northern France, is still an event etched in every British school-child’s memory. It would take years before the horrors of Nazi concentration camps at Poland’s Oswiecim anglicized to Auschwitz, and elsewhere and tales of courage in the Warsaw Uprising of Polish Jewry, had penetrated the British psyche!
In untrammeled Pursuit of Education
Despite privations including food rationing, Marjorie, a Gold-Card member of the High IQ Club, pursued her education with a zealotry she would employ in all future endeavors. Moving to London she attended Royal Holloway College, University of London (l940-l945), graduating in English Literature with Honors; supplementing her education there with a Masters degree. Having studied the life and works of Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881)--the historian, satirist and political activist, Marjorie was well- attuned to excellence, a life of the mind and suffocating social power of class.
In Flight from Social Conventions of l940s-l970s Britain
Admittedly there was much to dislike in Britain’s middle years (l940s to l970s). The social structure British Empire with its class condescension included racially-tinged invective against people of color, antipathy toward foreigners-- anyone not English. In this all others were grouped together, accompanied by the usual anti-Semitic tropes against Jews. For MOM, exposure to countries outside England--in travel to Western Europe provided experience of places and people more welcoming. As Great Britain began to shrink in size to that little island off the coast of France, Marjorie—restless--yearned for engagement elsewhere.
A series of tumultuous events led MOM to emigrate. After a failed love affair with a young man named Alastair, Marjorie joined the Christian Missionary Society; in l955 flying south to Kenya. After the death of her mother Phyllis a year later, in l957 her father, suffering bereavement, arrived to be with his daughter. With King’s second marriage in l959 to a woman who viewed MOM as somewhat as an interloper, she was left anchorless.
To Another White Hegemonic Society
By the mid-l950s in Kenya Marjorie would discover its capitol at Nairobi as a place of equally insufferable race and class barriers. In this city where black Kenyans vastly outnumber affluent Asian and white migrants, Marjorie was fated, once again, to be part of system catering to a white sociological majority. This very English, very private woman needed a proverbial committee of experts for revaluation and public re-definition. Marjorie would hear ad infinitum that awful appellation mzungu meaning “white” from the Kiswahili Kuzunguka, “to travel around.” Derived from constant movement of l9th c. explorers and/or missionaries -- Krapf, Rebmann, Burton and Speke—this wholly inappropriate term continues in use to today!
As with all stereotypes, stochastic forces were also in play! Wazungu traded on whiteness to wrest favors from government officers while others paid another price. As wazungu we are all affluent, the cost for items based on appearance was/is elevated. The ubiquitous staring, the constant, embarrassing harangue for alms or school fees--light-skinned women in high demand over darker sisters—is included in the array of unpleasantries.
The World of Yesterday
The Nairobi of the l960s--a small city on the cusp of independence in an under-populated country was the capital of a nation of ex-peasant farmers who arrived to try their luck in the Big City. On view were familiar vintage architectural landmarks recycled in similar time frames from all over the British Empire. British security concerns saw the erection of Fort Smith at Ndumbaini and the first prison near today’s University of Nairobi. The erection of the Uganda Railway from the Port of Mombasa to Lake Victoria (l898 to l902) led to the Nairobi Railway Station (1906). High-end commerce began on Government Road while low-end business was situated “in the Bazaar,” (today’s Bazaar Street) followed by a few eateries e.g., the Supreme Hotel and Curry Pot. By 1904 Nairobi’s first high-end lodging catering to upper-class white settlers only called the Norfolk Hotel, had been constructed. Financial institutions began with Barclay’s Bank (1906) followed by religious orders-- Christian, Jewish and Muslim. Among the earliest churches, St. Stephen’s Anglican Church (l902), a flimsy wood and mabati structure, had been constructed along today’s Parliament Road. By l912 St. Stephen’s Church was moved to Pumwani at today’s Jogoo Road and dedicated to St. John after whom it was renamed. In the same year (l923), All Saints Cathedral begun by the Church Missionary Society had its foundation stone laid along today’s Kenyatta Avenue.
These Christian religious edifices were followed by the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation (l907) still in its same location. The Khoja Mosque (1920) built by the Aga Khan for members of his Khoja Shi’a Ismaili community at the junction of Moi Avenue and River Road was followed by government buildings including City Hall, the Law Courts and a library on Banda Street, named for British financier, Sir William Northrup Mcmillan. It was a place Miss Marjorie loved to frequent particularly for its ample collection and quietude in the upstairs Africana section. City Market and Jeevanjee Gardens on land donated by Bohra Muslim brothers, AM and TM Jeevanjee were popular venues to meet old friends!
The British-built Royal Technical College would become the University of Nairobi, and by l953, the Kenya National Theatre, another favored location of MOM had appeared. To us on government salaries, affluent areas of Muthaiga to the East and Karen to the West—with white-only restrictions—seemed far away! Pumwani Maternity Hospital on the way to Eastleigh and the Globe Cinema roundabout winding around into River Road were recognizable features of British-Indian-era architecture. Ideas of squat, over-wrought old-style neoclassicism were common- place until l973 when Norwegian modernity arrived in the soaring tower of today’s 28-story Kenyatta International Conference International Centre built by Norwegian architect Karl Henrik Nostvik!
On moving to Nairobi, as so many Euro-American expats did, MOM allowed time for self-reflection and personal re-invention. Cutting through layers of racial and class conditioning, she created her own life-space. From middle class to working class, from missionary to lay theologian, from school teacher to storyteller, from single woman to married woman with four children, all this needed expert juggling. If on sight, she appeared as a strait-laced Anglo-Norman schoolmarm, her middle-class speech betrayed a sophisticated thought-world resulting from a top-class education.
With her cross-race marriage considered unthinkable at the time, MOM enjoyed bucking social convention. In l960 she married Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, a Jaluo Medical Officer. Together they travelled to the UK where Phyllis and George were born! On returning to Kenya, Marjorie and spouse moved to Alupe, South Nyanza near the border with Uganda where together they offered solace to patients at a leprosarium. Later in Kisumu, Marjorie took a job as a schoolteacher in a government school in Gem. If the shoe fits… Son George remembers ensuing problems. At primary school, fitted out in shoes while other students went barefoot, he felt out of place; his marks plummeting.
As Daughter of the Lakes, MOM soon found village life in hot, mosquito-infested Gem and her matronly existence stifling. Nyanza was too rural, too provincial, too small town--too agonizingly ingrown--for this energetic cold-weather- loving Londoner who made every moment count. To her, Nairobi was the promised land!
By the late l960s MOM was recruited by Textbook Centre out of their offices on Kijabe Street around the corner from the Norfolk Hotel. Working out of S.J. Moore’s Bookshop on Government Road (today’s Moi Avenue) where she was in charge, she read every major work. An admirer of Doris Lessing, another expatriate out of Britain born in Africa, Lessing’s breakthrough novel, The Grass is Singing (l950) provided the template for MOM’s Make it Sing! And other Poems.(1998).
Shared experiences of rich, well-born British colonials written by themselves were on view in the Bookshop. Richard Burton’s First Footsteps in East Africa (1894), White Man’s Burden (l898), Rudyard Kipling’s poem If (l895), Elspeth Huxley’s White man’s Country (1935) and Wilfred Thesiger’s Life of my Choice (1980) were often-selected titles. Women wordsmiths such as Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa (l937) and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night (l942) were popular too. An experienced bookseller, Marjorie foreswore never either to write about or promote the literary efforts of long-gone colonials! Who would?
….And Low Liars
Writer, poet, loyal friend, Marjorie gave her imprimatur even to the troglodytes in her midst; damaged souls such as Ugandan poet, priapic pervert and the serial plagiarist Okot P’Bitek. Okot, author of Song of Lawino (l966) was a loathsome character. He even confessed to plagiarism; lifting the oral poem that made him famous from his own mother! Playing the color-card in a peculiar reversal of racial bias, P’Bitek also proffered xenophobic insults against MOM’s mixed-race offspring. In “Letter to a Friend; For Okot p.Bitek” in Make it Sing!, Marjorie asks: Why should I be afraid for my sons? Half-black? They are not half-anything, not putty-colored flaccid in your hands, but golden and red-blooded.
The Dystopic Moi Years (l979-2002)
Ignorant hubris in a violent setting is on offer as a character study describing life under Daniel arap Moi. Despite his eight years of schooling, Moi was branded “professor of politics” for his shocking pronouncements and frightening Nyayo House solutions. Despite the l982 coup attempt, MOM scripted a promising view of the nation entitled The Story of Kenya, A Nation in the Making (1986); an act of bearing witness rather than an accurate portrayal of the era; admittedly not her finest hour.
A failed l982 coup attempt against the Moi Government catalyzed the late President’s crackdown on dissidents. Sedition trials of Prof. Edward Oyugi, Prof. Ngotho Kariuki, Koigi wa Wamwere and Willie Mutunga incarcerated at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison or in Nyayo House’s underground prison were held. By the l990s Vertestine Mbaya, an African-American scientist cum environmentalist, identifying with the late Martin Luther King, met and mentored a young lecturer in Veterinary Medicine at the University of Nairobi named Wangari Maathai. Together with political activists Wahu Ka’ara, Wakaba Thuge, mother of Koigi wa Wamwere and others met at Nairobi’s Jamhuri Park, now called Freedom Corner. There the Committee to Release Political Prisoners was formed.
During those electrifying times, political agitation ran currently with the Greenbelt Movement catalyzed by Mbaya and Maathai. Despite receiving the Nobel Prize, MOM was never an admirer of Maathai...left as is until time invites itself. With strands of activism entangled in both political agitation and environmental preservation, eye witnesses might have preferred others as recipients of the high honor.
From the Political to the Pastoral
With a particular passion for Christian evangelicals, MOM found connection in the lives of the early missionaries. Her fictionalized account of German missionary Johannes Rebmann entitled Rebmann (2014) is constructed around the now-blind pastor returning home after decades in Rabai--a village twelve miles northwest of Mombasa, Kilifi County. For twenty long years, Rebmann lived in near-unbearable heat preaching the gospel for Christendom. If works of fiction are considered autobiographical, Rebmann is Marjorie’s doppelganger—humble, forceful, kind and scholarly!
Reflections on Life Refracted though Poetry and Prose!
By l843 Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Victorian poet and politically-engaged intellectual, had scripted The Cry of Children condemning child labor. A century later Marjorie’s own crusade against cruelty to children appeared as a fictional account of observations on life in Nyanza. Called A Freedom Song (1971), she depicted the world of Atieno yo, a girl child subjected to abusive treatment at the hands of shameless relatives. Despite, the poem being chosen as a set school text-- placing her in the artistic vanguard of Kenyan poetry—Marjorie deemed the poem “wholly ineffective” as abusive treatment of children continues to today.
As psychiatrists aver, traumatized people have a powerful drive to recreate their traumas. Re-orchestrating the Warsaw Ghetto carnage in Palestine, Israeli Jews are embedded in an unending conflict against Palestinians with no resolution in sight! Marjorie’s response was A Farm Called Kishinev (2005), named for a l9tn c. anti-Semitic pogrom in Belarus. Beginning in l903 it is a fictional account of three generations of a Jewish/Nandi family descended from a cross-racial marriage! The work is a page turner! A devout Christian, Marjorie also had an abiding affection for the Jewish people. In her memoir, she writes: God the Father is very much the God of the Old Testament, leading, laying down the Law, chastising, sending prophets with their parables and object lessons. Most of us can feel more at home there than in the New Testament with its illimitable challenges and unattainable examples of grace.
I loved it!
From One Storyteller to Another
Mother Africa, born in Southampton lived large! An intrepid traveler of the mind, Marjorie King Oludhe Macgoye was a literary queen and mastermind of a galactic-sized life-space few attain. Following the Socratic axiom that the unexamined life is not worth living, MOM never slept! Her forays into labor, society and the underserved done with wisdom, warmth and wit continue to be topical and easily accessible to all. An indefatigable wordsmith—the indelible image of the woman forever clacking away on her typewriter--remains. This well-seasoned wonder woman left an enviable trail of lively commentary and creativity in an open-air community embracing writers, artists, musicians, poets and political activists. A daunting work schedule as fulltime manager of a prominent Nairobi book shop left Marjorie undeterred. If that were not enough, she was wife, mother of four, grandmother to Mark, Marcia, Tom, Daniel, and Deborah with Little Marjorie and Sherrie both aeronautical engineers. Rather than a just another postcard memory swallowed by the vast, impersonal,-multi-ethnic city Nairobi was to become, MOM lives on in another freedom song; a mellifluous serenade by a chorus of those who admire, love and rejoice in the cornucopia of scholarship, history, poetry and prose we continue to enjoy today!
- Marjorie graduates from Royal Holloway College, University of London 1945.
- Marjorie at about age three in Southampton.
- Marjorie with author.
- Marjorie’s wedding photo with Daniel Oludhe Macgoye.
- Marjorie aged 14 and friend in Southampton.
- Daniel Oludhe Macgoye.