End of Colonial Kenya Reflected in Its Own Literature

The similarities between a fictitious young woman’s coming of age and the history of British rule

End of Colonial Kenya Reflected in Its Own Literature
Former president of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta, celebrates with the cheering crowds on the country’s independence day, 1963. (Hulton-Deutsch Collection / CORBIS / Corbis via Getty Images)

I had been searching for a copy of “Coming to Birth” for years. In Nairobi, I scoured bookstores, walking to the usual upmarket book shops where I was a regular and to the questionable ones on dangerous streets. I called the book’s publisher, East African Educational Publishers, directly and asked them whether they had a copy of the novel stored in a warehouse somewhere. They didn’t, and neither did any of the book sellers I reached out to. Friends offered to lend me their copies, but I demurred; that wasn’t what I wanted. What I wanted was a copy to own and hoard and write in and to give a place of honor on my bookshelf. Then, in the U.S. for a fellowship, I remembered that the book had also had an American publisher, the Feminist Press of the City University of New York, which had republished it in 2000 as part of a series of books by African women, 14 years after its original publication. They didn’t have a copy of the book either (it was out of stock), but Second Sale, a second-hand bookstore, did. They mailed it to me.

I didn’t read the book while in the U.S. I waited until I was back in Kenya before doing so. On a long-distance bus from Nairobi to Kisumu, a city in western Kenya where I was born and grew up, I opened the first pages. The rush, excitement, the joy. Whatever worries I had that the book I loved as a child was only good in the specter of my memory dissipated in the first paragraph. Martin Were, newly wed, was on his way to the train station to meet his new bride, Paulina. Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, the book’s author, describes Nairobi as Martin moves through the city.

It was eight o’clock in the morning, one of those cool, bright Nairobi mornings with a strident blue and white sky like the best kind of airmail pad, promising heat later on, bougainvillea dry and overpowering with a familiar papery rustle, the station desperately important, loudspeaker announcements, tickets and passes, hustle and bustle, the life-line of the country as he had been taught at school, and a hubbub of young soldiers coming and going in khaki, for this was 1956 and the Emergency an accepted fact.

What an exhilarating opening salvo, I thought. Right at the start of the book, here was Macgoye situating us in the political presence of the Mau Mau and the state of emergency that the British colonial government had declared in 1952 in order to battle anti-colonial Mau Mau fighters and the people they accused of supporting the group. I settled deeper into my chair and continued to read.

Just over two years ago, I wrote about the Danish writer Karen Blixen, her book “Out of Africa” and how her racist ideas of Kenya have shaped Western ideas of what the country is: a holiday destination for starry-eyed aristocratic Westerners. Similar to Blixen in this way are Joy Adamson and Elspeth Huxley, who wrote the same sort of literature, gushing about “wild” Africa in those same stilted tones.

During the years since then, I’ve been thinking about Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, however, and how she, despite being a Scottish woman who moved to Kenya and wrote about the country only as an adult, doesn’t suffer from the same vices. Instead, her book “Coming to Birth” is considered a canonical text in Kenya’s literary history, often put in the same category as books such as Ngugi wa Thiongo’s “Grain of Wheat” and Grace Ogot’s “Land Without Thunder.”

When “Coming to Birth” was first published, a reviewer in The Times of London described it as “modern Kenya’s answer to ‘Out of Africa.’” Whereas Blixen had, in “Out of Africa”, pandered to racist ideas of what the Kenyan colony was, Macgoye, like Blixen a white European, had written a response that placed African, rather than European experiences, at its center.

Rereading this book now, half a year after an election for which questions have been asked about the foundational truth of modern Kenya, I find lessons to be learned on how to record a political moment, and how to see through the subterfuge into what is actually happening. The point Macgoye made is that at the heart of modern Kenya was chicanery, and in the present there is a new president out to craft his own story of what Kenya is and what Kenya should be. In Macgoye’s Paulina, we encounter a woman who was crafting her story and, in so doing, became the image of a whole nation’s story.

“Coming to Birth” is two stories in one: On the surface, it’s the story of Paulina, a young girl who moves to Nairobi when she marries Martin Were and then slowly discovers herself as a person. It is also the story of the nation-state of Kenya and how it discovers itself in the years after independence in late 1963.

When the book begins in 1956, Kenya was four years into the bloody war the British were waging against anti-colonial Mau Mau fighters. In conjunction with that war, the colonialists had adopted a raft of measures aimed at suppressing the African population in Nairobi, especially the Kikuyu, Embu and Meru people. The British were basing these measures on actions they had also taken against Palestinians in Tel Aviv. This is the Nairobi Paulina enters, as a frightened, ignorant and hopelessly naive young woman. As I sat in the bus, flicking through the pages, memories of my previous readings of the book came to mind, and I became frightened of reading on because I knew that things were going to get bad for Paulina pretty soon. And they did. There is a litany of violent events, one after the other. Some of it is inflicted on her by Martin, who is cruel in an insidious, masculinist way (Martin is like the sadistic uncle in “Atieno yo,” one of Macgoye’s best-known poems); other parts are inflicted by the city itself, where Paulina struggles to find herself.

Martin and Paulina lived in Majengo, which was in the heart of the African zone of the city. My own grandparents had lived somewhere nearby in the years before and after independence, and as the years edged closer to independence, they, like Martin and Paulina, experienced the new pulses and cries of freedom. People like Kenyan Tom Mboya and Uganda’s Milton Obote gave speeches that Martin attended. In Uganda, “there was trouble too about the King and Parliament,” and in Egypt, there was trouble over the Suez. Then there was news of a place called Ghana, “a new country, people said, which had not been there before, which surprised Paulina.”

In Kenya, the politics intensified. Paulina had lost her second baby when three police officers looking for Mau Mau sympathizers bulldozed their way into her house and assaulted her. Nevertheless, apart from this loss, she felt herself removed from the politics around her. Macgoye writes,

Things happened — bridges were flooded, buses collided, schools were upgraded — but in the total picture nothing happened. To Paulina, none of these things mattered. What she wanted was a baby. Desperately. In a world in which she had none of the skills that were desired, and almost no education, a baby symbolized freedom and a way to become a person: she would become a mother. But when the miscarriages mounted, she moved away from Nairobi, to Kisumu.

There is hardly any literary fiction written about Kisumu. Part of the attraction of “Coming to Birth” for me is that Kisumu — ordinarily a sleepy city where little happens outside election years — appears in full technicolor. Here is Janet, Paulina’s friend, with a son studying at Maseno School, near where my father worked. Here’s Victoria Social Centre, where Paulina goes to watch foreign films and football matches. Macgoye describes the weather — “Life in Kisumu went on evenly, sunny in the morning, scorching in the afternoon, with a wind suddenly blowing up before dark, thunderstorms sometimes and dust devils nearly every day” — and I am transported to my childhood. Sometimes Paulina goes to Lake Victoria to look at hippos, as I did as a child, and the lake level is rising, as it would again, 60 years later, when I wrote about it.

Macgoye herself lived in Kisumu. From 1960 to 1971, she and her Kenyan husband, Daniel Oludhe Macgoye, lived in town, and their two children were born there. Macgoye makes a life for herself in Kisumu. She raises her children, writes and teaches at Kisumu Girls’ High School, across the fence from where my own mother taught. In fact, in “Coming to Birth,” one of two times that Macgoye appears in the novel is in Kisumu. First, she’s in Nairobi as one of Paulina’s helpers when she gets lost on her way home from the hospital after her first miscarriage — Macgoye’s the “short one with glasses and a bicycle.” Later, on the occasion of Kenya’s independence from Britain in 1963, there’s a celebration held in Kisumu that Paulina attends. There, “Paulina spotted the little white girl who had been in Pumwani, with two little children and a black husband now, and though they did not really recognize her, they greeted her civilly in Luo and exchanged congratulations on the occasion.”

By then Martin and Paulina’s marriage had collapsed as a result of — if not exactly the lack of passion, certainly the years of drifting apart and disappointment from their failure to have a child, and — Martin’s affair with Fauzia, a girl “with a sound Swahili erotic education.”

What does it mean that, as Kenya was being birthed, Paulina’s dream of motherhood was escaping her? Seven years of marriage, and what did they have to show for it but a few gray hairs here and there and more flesh on their bones? Perhaps the freedom Paulina had sought was of a different kind; freedom from Martin and from the expectations of purity and motherhood. A week after Kenya’s independence, she had begun her own affair in Kisumu. She was only 24. The horror at how young she had been when she got married is drummed in.

The bus I was in moved on, closer to Kisumu every minute. Past the road accident black spots at Salgaa and Sachangwan. Past the tea plantations in Kericho and the forest the plantations had been carved from. We are climbing down into the Rift Valley now, and soon Kisumu itself will appear, glistening in the evening dusk. The man seated next to me takes a phone call. Conversation. Laughter. Everything in Luo. “Isechopo dala?” he asks (“Have you reached home?”). He could as well have been asking me whether I’d reached home, Kisumu.

In the book, Paulina ended her affair, but she was pregnant; this was the child she had always wanted. On the edges of the page I wrote, “What a mature, drama-free breakup!” The child was born in Kisumu and she called him Martin, after her husband, who was not the father of the child and didn’t know about him. She had come to birth, as had Kenya. She hired a nanny. “The world went on, with or without Paulina’s attention.”

A minister died in a road accident in 1969, and the next day the Mozambican revolutionary leader Eduardo Mondlane was assassinated in Dar es Salaam. Then another Kenyan minister, Tom Mboya, was shot dead in Nairobi. Paulina heard about it on the radio, as did Martin, her estranged husband, in his house in Nairobi. At the trial, the accused, Njenga, “smiled loftily through it all, like some half-activated idiot.” A page later, Macgoye described Njenga again. This time, he was a “grotesque figure, grinning in the dock like a cartoon character.”

A few months later, there was a massacre in Kisumu, and Paulina’s son, 2 years old, was killed by cops in the melee after the massacre. Paulina is unbirthed, and so is Kenya; the events of the day mark the splintering of project Kenya and the beginning of three decades of hard-nosed dictatorship.

I studied other books by Macgoye in college, including the novels “Street Life” and “Homing In,” as well as countless poems by her. Yet it is to “Coming to Birth” that I return whenever I think about project Kenya and its failures and disappointments. Yes, Kenya had been birthed, but what did it mean? A child had been born to Paulina, and she was a fulfilled mother; but then the child was killed, literally, by the Kenyan state. After the 1969 Kisumu massacre, Macgoye and her family fled Kisumu and moved to Dar es Salaam, as did Paulina, who moved back to Nairobi.

Macgoye’s strength as a writer was in the way she presented her raging politics. She was subtle in her political messaging, relying on a particularly deft, free, indirect discourse to present her views as if they were the narrator’s. But the problem with her subtlety was that sometimes she was accused of not being political enough, while at other moments she was accused of being too political.

The section of the book that has Paulina back in Nairobi I read in my parents’ house in Kisumu. I sat on the veranda, the sun on my legs, glad to have exchanged the winter layers I had been ensconced in for the last month of my stay in the U.S. for a pair of shorts.

Paulina worked, first for a wealthy couple in Nairobi as a live-in nanny, then for a member of Parliament and his wife. Martin (her husband, not her son) reappeared, and the two of them, older now and grizzled, try again. She had grown into a person while in Kisumu and was independent of him; this meant that he couldn’t bully her in the old ways. Things continued to happen.

In 1971, there was a coup in Kenya that failed and one in Uganda that succeeded. There were whispers: a ruby mine; oil in northern Kenya; Obote, the deposed Ugandan president, spotted in Dar es Salaam, where the real-life Macgoye was living at the time. The years passed.

Martin moved into Paulina’s room at her employer’s house. In 1975, J.M. Kariuki, a popular Kenyan politician, was assassinated. Member of Parliament Chelagat Mutai was arrested for asking about Kariuki’s murder.

Chelagat’s arrest marks a permanent, seismic change in the nature of Martin and Paulina’s relationship. Whereas Martin had been the politically overt one and Pauline the docile one who didn’t pay attention to political events, the roles are reversed. We must do something, she tells him. Martin is unmoved. Scarred by the trauma of Kenya’s political history and by his failure to rise above his economic class, he doesn’t think anything can be done. Martin is a disappointment, and so Paulina turns to her boss, Mrs. M, who responds with “one refusal after the other.” Mr. M., despite the fact that he is also a member of Parliament, is unwilling to help Paulina and intervene in Chelagat’s arrest. He tells Mrs. M and Paulina that the constitution “was not made for individuals.”

Mr. M’s refusal to help free a woman who Paulina believed had been wrongly arrested was another way that Kenya continued to fail Paulina. And nearby Uganda, which always felt like a close sibling, and where Idi Amin reigned with terror, “left you with a feeling of dread — its kings, its crocodiles, its martyred history, its excess of dress, devotion, and in recent years, of devious violence.”

Yet Paulina does not give up on her values, her country or herself. She becomes temporarily semi-famous when she is photographed and written about in the daily newspaper as a woman who helps street children. She and Martin continue to try. Then it is a new year, 1978, and “the first newspaper to come out after the holiday weekend told them that Ngugi had been arrested.” The people around Paulina are not readers but “everybody knows Ngugi.”’

Ngugi here is, of course, Ngugi wa Thiongo, the venerated Kenyan writer who was Macgoye’s friend and contemporary. “Finally!” I wrote in the margin of the book. I hadn’t read the book in more than a decade and couldn’t remember Ngugi’s ever being in it. Chelagat I remembered with a vividness that surprised me, as I did Paulina’s sorrows and disappointments and Martin’s cruelties, but I had forgotten about Ngugi. Martin goes and buys a copy of Ngugi’s “Petals of Blood” and sets about reading it, he who, in Macgoye’s words, “had almost stopped reading books and was sceptical even of newspapers.”

Part of the reason I love “Coming to Birth” is because it placed Macgoye in her milieu of Kenyan and East African writers. Here she mentions Ngugi, one of the East African writers Macgoye was close to. She had launched his first book in a bookstore she ran in Nairobi. Then there was the Ugandan poet Okot P’Bitek who Macgoye had been close friends with when the two of them lived in Kisumu at the same time, in 1968 and 1969. In addition, she and the Kenyan poet Jonathan Kariara, who had been in school with Ngugi in Uganda in the early 1960s, had organized monthly poetry readings in Nairobi together in the 1970s, after she came back to Kenya from Tanzania in 1975.

“Coming to Birth” was written after Macgoye, her husband and their children had moved back to Kenya. The book ends shortly after Ngugi’s arrest. In fact, this is the last political event this white Scottish woman who had fingered the pulse of Kenya’s political history describes in her book.

A few pages into Martin’s reading of Ngugi’s “Petals of Blood,” Paulina discovers that she is pregnant, that she and her husband of 22 years are expecting the child they’ve desired all along. When the novel ends, Paulina is three months pregnant, and it is March 1978, five months before the death of Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, a man who had stolen the birth of a new nation, and whose reign was the start of a decades-long repressive and anti-democratic dictatorship in Kenya. Still sitting on the veranda of my parents’ house, I wrote in the margins, “‘Coming to Birth’: Paulina still trying; Kenya still trying.”

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