As Kenya celebrates 50 of independence, it seems proper to reflect on the struggle against other internal post-independence colonialisms.
Arguably, the country’s literature, in its sustained critical gaze into the Kenya post-colony and its ambiguities, has been at the fore of this struggle.
One strand of literature that stands out is women’s writing, particularly in the novel, a genre that theorist Mikhail Bakhtin argues is “inherently anti-normative… a maverick form, sceptical of all the authoritative claims to truth.”
Of course, we should be wary of the danger of dividing a country’s literature on the basis of gender but then, to reflect with Ania Loomba in Colonialism/Post-colonialism (2005), “[I]f the nation is an imagined community, that imagining is profoundly gendered”.
How then have novelists Grace Ogot, Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Rebeka Njau, Margaret Ogola, Pat Ngurukie, Muthoni Garland, among others, reconstructed the Kenyan narrative to interpret patriarchal colonialisms?
In their writings, these authors could be seen to have “engaged with established representations of gender, race, and modernity in an effort to define their own visions in an effort to recover the emancipatory promises of social reform from the fraudulent practices of the often ambivalent gender rhetoric.”
It is the interrogation of the authenticity of Kenya’s patriarchal colonialisms that Grace Ogot launches in The Promised Land (1966), a novel that also has the distinction, together Nigerian Flora Nwapa’s Efuru (1966), of being the first to be published by African women.
The Promised Land may not emerge as a narrative that forcefully challenges patriarchal narratives in Kenya but, in a close reading, the protagonist Nyapol does re-examine male-mystifying stories and strive to subvert those constructions.
In Ogot’s other novel, The Strange Bride (1989), Nyawir, mythically problematic, as constructed by the community folklore, is tactfully re-calibrated into a revolutionary heroine who places her community on the path to economic and political growth.
In The Present Moment (1987), Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye traces the lives of Kenyan women during the colonial and post-independence periods.
The novel is narrated through the voices of seven women protagonists whose sub-narratives read into Kenya’s history.
The women’s stories, however, depict lack and deprivation, the failure of the Kenya post-colony to actualise the dreams of the independence struggle, which they endeavour to correct by re-storying their various forms of resistance to patriarchal oppression and domination.
Rebeka Njau’s The Sacred Seed (2003), interrogates the woman’s limited space in the patriarchal narratives of the young Kenyan nation.
But Sacred Seed is also something more in the manner in which its heroines, represented by Tesa, take male objectification head-on and deflate patriarchy.
In Margaret Ogola’s The River and The Source (1993), the heroine, Akoko, just like Ogot’s Nyapol, lays a strong foundation for the future actualisation of women’s dreams and aspirations.
The critic, Evan Mwangi, in Africa Writes Back to Self: Metafiction, Gender, Sexuality (2009), sees Ogola as using the “epic in a feminist-inflected mode to de-construct its original obsession with nationalistic and military conquest, to highlight the epic battles Kenyan women have waged against sexist practices.”
Even in the seemingly aesthetically less-steeped popular novels, such as those by Asenath Bole Odaga (Riana, 1991), Pat Wambui Ngurukie (I Will Be Your Substitute, 1984), Wairimu Kibugi (Three Instead of One, 1996), and Florence Genga-Idowu (Lady in Chains, 1993), there is an appeal for public scrutiny into the male-defined institutions such as marriage, and issues like the objectification of the female, a process that is potently deconstructive of patriarchal colonialisms.
The fictions of identity, nationalism, history, politics and gender that emerge in Owuor’s Dust(2013), Moraa Gitaa’s Crucible for Silver & Furnace for Gold (2008), and Muthoni Garland’s Tracking the Scent of My Mother (2011), among others, are signifiers of the fact that the women’s stories continue re-imagine and re-write Kenya’s patriarchal colonialisms.
Lennox Odiemo-Munara researches on Literature.