Asenath Odaga: Matriach who bequeathed us rich literature and sense of belonging

Asenath Bole Odaga

“Sena”, he called and hurried in after excusing himself. “Here is a call for you;  I think someone would like to talk to you”.

That was Thursday, November 7, 2013, shortly before midday. I had been sitting down with the Kenyan author and Oral Literature researcher, Asenath Bole Odaga for close to 30 minutes at their Kisumu house.

Her husband, the trade unionist James Odaga, rushed in with Bole’s mobile phone, which he had been holding for her.

That was also the same day I knew that Bole Odaga and veteran trade unionist Dennis Akumu were siblings from the same womb (they hailed from Sigoti, on the flat tableland all geographers refer to as Nyabondo Plateau, in Nyakach).

Indeed, Asenath had this cold and melancholic way of looking at you, a stare also easily recognisable in her brother’s political photographs.

Anyway, she took the phone and said, “Hello”, but there was no reply. So she requested her husband to take the phone again, to avoid any distraction.

Great proponent

We know she passed away on Monday and Asenath Bole Odaga’s contribution to Kenyan art – not just literature – can be looked at in five broad areas: publishing, Oral Literature research, creativity, gender equity and bridging Kenya’s perceived generational gap in the arts.

Her Lake Publishers was one of the earliest publishing houses to open up doors to indigenous books in Kenya. Along Kisumu’s Kenyatta Avenue, it was always possible to find and buy some of the oldest books in Kenya’s history, in her small bookshop called Thu-Tinda.

Odaga’s engagement with Oral Literature research flowered at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for African Studies in the late 1970s, till 1980.

She worked alongside the usual suspects at the time; Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, Taban Lo Liyong’, Henry Owuor-Anyumba among others.

One of the results of her research work is a book she co-authored with S Kichamu Akivaga, Oral Literature: A School Certificate Course (1982), a text which has dominated the teaching of Oral Literature in Kenyan secondary schools for decades now.  

In a country where research has constantly gone ethnic, the text boasts a collection of numerous narratives from many Kenyan communities.

Her de-tribalised mind is also seen in her works, Kenyan Folk Tales, and Yesterday’s Today: The Study of Oral Literature.

Her creative works cut across age groups. Her best known works include Endless Road (1995), The Shade Changes (1984), Between the Years (1987), Something for Nothing (2001),  Riana (1991), A Bridge in Time (1987), The Secret of the Monkey Rock (1966) and Jande’s Ambition (1966). Asenath used to say she wrote over twenty books, including research texts.

The University of Nairobi’s Prof Hellen Mwanzi remembers her as a pioneer in children literature.

“Bole Odaga is a pioneer author for children and young adults. She was an accomplished scholar recognised internationally. Sena will be missed by the world of children’s literature.

She established and ran a press just for that. She mentored many women having a passion for further studies. She was a prolific writer.”

Empower women

What inspired the author’s concern for the girl-child was an incident which happened when she and a friend were still students at Ng’iya Girls probably in the 1950s – in today’s Siaya County.

Schools had closed and both were walking across the Kano Plains. Suddenly a group of men surrounded them and pounced on her friend, but Asenath took to her heels (even in old age, Asenath was still strikingly athletic).

That was how her friend was married. The next time she saw her, the girl was heavy with child.

That incident propelled her to establish the Gender and Development Centre (GDC) after her studies at the University of Nairobi in the 1980s.

It was an East African NGO focusing on women and empowerment by mentoring and offering guidance and counseling to school girls.

The NGO also identified economic activities that could empower women. Bole Odaga used to stress that the intention was not to put wives and husbands at loggerheads; rather, economic empowerment was possible ‘without belittling any husband’.

It is likely that her biggest contribution to Kenyan art (only because this seems to be the ugliest hurdle Kenyan art will have to jump before it matures) is her work on advising young artists to ‘look inside’ and in her attempt to lessen the noise between the pioneers and the new.

The matriarch’s opinion was: “Kenyan art is in Kenya not abroad”. But she also had no problem with writers doing so in sheng’, or in any other language they felt comfortable with. She stressed that in art, any language was good for self-expression.

Some of her books such as Luo Sayings (1994) popularised an African language (Dholuo). Of all these, none will have done so more successfully than her Dholuo-English Dictionary (2005).

Perhaps Asenath will have gone away happy that her research work produced books such as Dust (2014), some of whose characters are traceable to Luo oral narratives.

Author Marjorie Oludhe remembers that she first met Odaga in Kisumu. She says: “We met at the Kisumu Social Centre when I lived in that town from 1953 to 1971.

The place was a hub for literary enthusiasts such as Okot p’Bitek and Ngugi wa Thiong’o. When I finally moved to Nairobi, we would occasionally meet when Asenath travelled to the city”.

Prof Chris Wanjala recalls that the late Odaga joined the Institute of African Studies as an adult student.

“She came and did both her undergraduate and postgraduate studies at the university. She was an educationist who joined the Institute as a junior research fellow.

I remember her great interest not only in Oral Literature, but also in popular culture and publishing. She was an ‘entrepreneurial scholar’. We have lost a feminist, a very powerful member of the literary circle.”

Odaga’s interest in writing fiction made her one of the earliest members of the Writers Association of Kenya (WAK) and it was she who succeeded him as the chair. Prof Wanjala recalls her peers included Grace Ogot, Pamela Kola and Micere Mugo.

Prof Arthur Luvai observes: “She was a committed literary artist who was full of passion to inspire others”.

“She was in our department when she joined,” recalls Prof Henry Indangasi, “and suddenly she became very passionate about Oral Literature. Odaga was a very active member of the Kenya Oral Literature Association (KOLA), and that was the time donors were emphasising gender issues”.

‘‘A great proponent of oral literature and our culture. She was also a pioneer in women’s writing having written the novella, ‘Mother of daughters,” adds Prof Wanjiku Kabira.