International Women’s Day – Kenyan Women Contributions In Literature

Grace Ogot. Image credit

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year. In different regions the focus of the celebrations ranges from general celebration of respect, appreciation, and love towards women to a celebration for women’s economic, political, and social achievements.

In August 1910, an International Women’s Conference was organized to precede the general meeting of the Socialist Second International in Copenhagen, Denmark. Inspired in part by the American socialists, German Socialist Luise Zietz proposed the establishment of an annual ‘International Woman’s Day’ (singular) and was seconded by fellow socialist and later communist leader Clara Zetkin, although no date was specified at that conference. Delegates (100 women from 17 countries) agreed with the idea as a strategy to promote equal rights, including suffrage, for women. The following year, on March 19, 1911, IWD was marked for the first time, by over a million people in Austria, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland. In the Austro-Hungarian Empire alone, there were 300 demonstrations. In Vienna, women paraded on the Ringstrasse and carried banners honouring the martyrs of the Paris Commune. Women demanded that women be given the right to vote and to hold public office. They also protested against employment sex discrimination.

Basically International Women’s day is a day to celebrate women’s accomplishments, mourn their losses and obstacles along the way, and look for ways to challenge the norms and cultural situations that bring them down to increase the chances of success in the generation of their daughters. One of the challenges that women have faced in general is having a prominent voice in the world of literature. African women writers are just beginning to come into their own, but they are facing many obstacles along the way.

Four African publishers rejected Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions because they believed the book portrayed the lives of black women too negatively. Buchi Emecheta has been disowned by several African male authors and critics for being too bold in her portrayal of woman characters in her novels. These and other African women authors have discussed the problems they face when they try to write about either strong African women characters or female characters that suffer at the hands of men. This may not want to be heard but the truth is the African world is still a very male dominated world, and female authors who dare to speak out about the condition of women in Africa have a tough, uphill road ahead of them.

Yet there are some women who face the challenge head on and continue to use their literary skills to challenge society’s customs and norms. I am reminded of women like Chimamanda Andichie, and her rise in the African Literature world. She sets an example of not holding back, amongst others.

Bringing it even closer home, we have heard of the icon of not only Kenyan but African literature, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o who casts a large shadow over the canon of literary works in Kenya, and his forthright opinions about language, publishing and writing make him a vital presence within the African literary world. Then we also know of Binyavanga Wainaina who is unopposed a unique presence in Kenyan literature. A few other names pop up here and there in the male category of literature growth in Kenya.

For nearly a decade, writers’ collectives such as Kwani Trust in Kenya and FEMRITE, the Ugandan Women Writers’ Association have dramatically reshaped the East African literary scene. This dramatic shift is evident in the success with which Ugandan women’s groups have collaborated with local publishing houses to steadily increase the literary presence of female authors, or in the efforts of ‘Kwani?’ magazine to promote the work of Kenyan scholars and writers, journalists and visual artists in an innovative print format. Though some of the women writers have been honoured with prestigious literary awards, their works have not received sustained critical attention. Yet somehow the female presence in the local literary canon is there but not as loud. Present, but not fully known, like a whisper that carries across the wind. We would like to recognize a few of the women who still forge on in their pursuit to make an impact in the literature of our country.

Grace Ogot. Image credit
Grace Ogot. Image credit

Grace Ogot

A founding member of the Writer’s Association of Kenya, and the first African female writer to be published in English, Grace Ogot has been a pioneering figure throughout her career. Born in Kenya’s Central Nyanza district in 1930, Ogot published her first short stories in the early 1960s and her first novel, The Promised Land, in 1966. This depicted the migration of a young farmer and his wife from Kenya to Tanzania, and the tribal conflict in which they become embroiled. Ogot uses this narrative to question notions of female identity in East Africa, and to subvert the concept of the ideal African wife. She went on from this auspicious debut to release a string of celebrated works including Land Without Thunder (1968), The Other Woman (1976), and The Island of Tears (1980).

Muthoni Garland

She was shortlisted for the Caine Prize in 2006, Muthoni Garland is also the founding member of StoryMoja, a writer’s collective and publishing house based in Nairobi. She is most famous for her works Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori, which documents a troubled marriage against the backdrop of a rapidly modernizing Kenya, and Tracking the Scent of My Mother, which was shortlisted for the Caine Prize. Beyond that her initiative in creating StoryMoja has given a boost to the Kenyan literary scene, and has fostered the careers of many promising writers. She has played a central role in organizing the Storymoja Hay Festival, which aims to celebrate and promote the best of Kenyan and East African literature. Garland’s most recent publication is an anthology of short stories, entitled Helicopter Beetles.

Yvonne Adhiambo Owour

An inspiring figure who has published work in Binyavanga Wainaina’s literary magazine Kwani?, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2003 for her story Weight of Whispers. This depicted a Rwandan aristocrat who fled to Kenya following the 1994 genocide, and is a masterful, multi-layered portrayal of the political and social chaos of that time. She has published numerous short stories since and has also been recognized for her role as a cultural activist and conservationist. Adhiambo Owuor has also published a novel, Dust, which ranges over the contemporary history of Kenya, offering a stark portrayal of the lingering effect of conflict and colonialism on a people, and their individual identities.

Margaret Ogola

Margaret Ogola was both a celebrated author and a doctor, who dedicated her life to the treatment of HIV/AIDS in East Africa. Her literary talent was revealed when she released her first novel The River and the Source, in 1994. This epic tale tells the story of three generations of women in a traditional Luo community, and relates the changing dynamics of the community and the women’s shifting place within it. The River and the Source was awarded multiple awards, including the Jomo Kenyatta Literature Prize, and the Commonwealth Writers Prize ‘Best First Book in the Africa Region’. Ogola went on to publish a sequel, I Swear by Apollo, which focuses on the lives of AIDS orphans in Kenyan society. Ogola was notable for her achievements in the medical and humanitarian field as well as the literary one, and was awarded the Familias Award for Humanitarian Service for her work with HIV/AIDS patients. She tragically passed away in 2011, at the age of only 53.

Lily Mabura

Another young author who has been shortlisted for the Caine Prize, Lily Mabura has developed a career as an academic. She currently works as Assistant Professor of English at the American University of Sharjah, alongside her literary pursuits. Mabura is best known for her collection of short stories, How Shall We Kill the Bishop and Other Stories, which was shortlisted for the 2010 Caine Fiction Prize. This varied collection contains a selection of brief, resonant tales which take the reader from Kenya, to Bosnia, Namibia, the Congo and the USA, and reveal Mabura’s ability to portray the human stories behind the narrative of globalization. Mabura has also published a novel, The Pretoria Conspiracy, which was awarded the National Book Week Literary Award for the Best First Novel, and a selection of children’s books, all of which have marked her out as one to watch within Kenya’s thriving literary scene.

This is not a comprehensive list and there are many other great women writers out there who we haven’t mentioned. You can read about Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye and the coming to birth of Kenyan literature in this article.  Find out about more about 2014 Caine Prize Winner Okwiri in this article Why I sometimes wander around graveyards.  Tell us your favourites and they could appear in another article. For more information check out The Culture Trip, African Women in Literature, and The Trouble with Modernity; Women’s Literature in Kenya and Uganda.

Check out this article on other great women doing great things in Kenya.  International Women’s day – Contributions of women to nation building.

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Shingai is an upcoming writer with a passion for words and expression through writing. She lived in Zimbabwe as a child and has traveled to over ten countries. She craves adventure and hopes to be an inspirational writer. She is currently pursuing a degree in English Literature with a minor in Psychology at Daystar University.