March 18, 2020 marked five years since the death of one of Kenya’s most prolific writers of fiction, Grace Emily Ogot.
Ogot left behind a rich legacy of numerous short stories and novels. Before she died, she had been working on two novels that focused on what can be called ‘the political philosophy of the Luo’.
These are The Royal Bead and Princess Nyilaak, which were published in 2018, three years after her death.
It appears as if towards the end of her life, she wished to speak to her readers about her political convictions by reflecting on the oral tradition of her Luo ancestors and people.
Reading the two novels is a journey through Ogot’s most predominant subject in her writing, the Luo people and the imaginary Luo nation.
Ogot devotedly wrote stories that were grounded in the Luo nation, Luo protagonists, and Luo culture, and established a niche that has been not only a resource material to students and teachers of literature but also continues to provide insights into other disciplines.
The two novels resurrect and translate two distinct Luo legends that have conventionally been told through oral tradition into the novel.
The novels provide an opportunity for readers to access a fresh insight on tales that have existed to them as myths in the past.
In a world where the folklore is under threat, Ogot’s effort emerges as redemptive of these narratives, which are vital in understanding the Luo nation.
In The Royal Bead, Ogot brings to the surface the antecedent of the Luo migration from Winam Settlement to Tekidi Settlement.
The story is based on a fratricidal conflict that instigates separation of a settlement that was once held firmly by Ruothship under Ker Olum.
The novel pinpoints the significant influence of greed for power, and the resultant jealousy, pursuit for vengeance, and the bitter relationship between two brothers, Ochola Arua and Podho Luo (sons to Ker Olum).
This internecine conflict fragments not only their father’s heart but also the entire settlement.
The most significant consequence is that this disagreement is the cause of Luo migration.
In Princess Nyilaak, Ogot offers a revolutionary narrative in her portrayal of an ancient Luo community.
In a highly patriarchal society at Wang’ Apala Settlement, Ogot’s protagonist, Nyilaak (a princess born to the royal family of Ruoth Kwanga’s first wife Achol) is poised to inherit Ruothship from her father.
While this had never happened in the past, Nyilaak is groomed as a boy, and later a man in preparation for the masculine role ahead of her, succeeding Ruoth Kwanga.
Her tutelage into a man’s world is met with opposition from her mother, peers and the society, but is an obligation from the ancestors, which is supervised by her father and grandmother, Amula.
It is intriguing to note how Ogot places the woman at the centre of these legendary tales.
Ogot crafts selected female characters in the two novels, who break boundaries and defy the status quo, and consequently elevates these women to the core of the community’s existence.
In The Royal Bead, Ochola Arua has to rely solely on a Mutwa woman while in the forest in his quest for Tong Ker, the royal spear, passed along generations from Ker Koma.
The Mutwa woman is presented as fearless, a hunter and a warrior who knows well the terrain of the forest.
Through her guidance, Ochola Arua manages to trace the lost elephant that had been speared and retrieves Podho Luo’s spear.
In Princess Nyilaak, Nyilaak, having been born with Ruoth Luo’s bead in her ear, becomes a future leader of her people, and the story revolves around the revolutionary efforts and difficulties experienced by her to break the boundaries so as to succeed her father, Ruoth Kwanga.
What Ogot does, it can be argued, is to debunk the perceived inferior status of the Luo woman in the society by (re)building these orthodox narratives on female characters who overcome stereotypes from a community that are socialised to deem the woman as inferior.
These stories share some elements with Ogot’s own life. Ogot served as MP for Gem constituency (in today’s Siaya County) and an assistant minister for culture in President Daniel arap Moi’s government.
As a woman, she broke boundaries similar to those the Mutwa woman and Nyilaak overcome, as she waddled in the male-dominated space of Kenyan politics.
Her attempt to offer agency and prominence to the Mutwa woman and Nyilaak is understandable, and her academic and political life resonate with the two women in these novels.
But beyond the portrayal of the struggles by women to overcome societal constraints, the other significant lesson that Grace Ogot offers in the two books is the damage that political differences can cause to a community.
The split in the Luo nation back in their original ancestral land in Sudan is triggered by jealousy and succession politics as presented in The Royal Bead.
Besides, Podho Luo is portrayed as an ambitious and power-hungry brother, and his decision not to forgive Ochola Arua for having lost the royal spear and instead force him to reclaim his lost spear is influenced by his wish to claim Ker’s position at the expense of his senior brother’s life.
A similar situation is dramatised in Nyilaak’s journey to succeed her father, Ruoth Kwanga.
Though Nyilaak is the father’s chosen heir, this decision is opposed by Layer (Kwanga’s brother) and his jealous wife Akech.
For Layer and Akech, the baton of Ruothship should be passed to them because their household has male children.
The stories that hold these narratives together primarily pivot around opposition to legitimate heirs by individuals and groups that are ambitious and oppose the selected ones simply because of selfish reasons.
Ogot appears to be warning the society that struggles over power and resources can destroy not only a family but the whole community.
In other words, she seems to be suggesting, internal strife derives from local dynamics and agents.
These two stories may be set in an imaginary Luo nation and they may be presented as the oral tradition of the Luo people.
But when they are published in the form of novels — not merely as translations of the existing legends — they become more than mere myths for a particular community.
The Royal Bead and Princess Nyilaak become stories that on one hand seek to retell the political philosophy of the Luo nation (assuming that there is indeed a Luo nation), and on the other seek to provoke debate about what broader politics of gender, sex, power, authority, resources, et cetera, should mean to men and women today.
The two stories remind readers that claims and fights over who has the right to rule, or who can rule, or who is customarily allowed to rule, which subsequently determine the individual’s status in society, have been with humankind from time immemorial and will probably not be resolved any time soon.
These are narratives of inclusion and exclusion. The only elements that change in these life struggles are the protagonists and contexts.
Thus, even the national debate over who or what community can or should rule Kenya isn’t really about who or what.
They are about who or what should be included or excluded. At the root of nationalism and the idea of a collective nation-state is the claim of equality.
Yet most nations are built from a collection of different groups. How does one construct a collective narrative of that one nation except by suppressing other narratives?
What Ogot is suggesting is that if other narratives are suppressed for too long, the society may not hold together as it happens in The Royal Bead, leading to many ‘Luo nations’ spread across Eastern Africa, and that often the society needs to review its own internal stories about its members, as depicted in Princess Nyilaak, leading to the possibility of a woman leader.