A variegated flood of reflective thoughts crowded my mind as I read of the good news that my friend Henry ole Kulet had won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for his novel Vanishing Herds.
I remembered that I read an autographed copy of the novel received from the author a few months ago. I classified the novel as one of those texts that penetrate the lives of ordinary villagers to give us the true reality of their lives.
Looking at my note book, where I jot short notes on the books I read, I realised that I scribbled one sentence about it. “A compelling love story told within the context of Maa culture.” But more close to my heart, as I absorbed the news, was the puzzle of what had made the judges award it the prestigious prize and not the other entries that are equally compelling.
I happened to have been the chairman of the panel of judges for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature way back in 1999, and I know how exigent it can be to arrive at a decision.
That year, after serious interrogation of all entries, my committee decided that none of them merited the award of Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, arguably the most prestigious literary prize in East and Central Africa.
The announcement was as dramatic as the decision was to all those who had gathered to receive prizes and their publishers.
As I made the announcement, I heard someone curse. What followed was vilification of my committee. We were accused of being blind to the creative ‘renaissance’ of the moment.
However, some publishers appreciated our decision, especially when we explained the many weaknesses in the entries. It is worth noting that many of the structural and grammatical weaknesses of the entries were, to say the least, embarrassing to the publishers.
I think the shock therapy of that year was necessary. As a keen observer of the literary scene, I have to admit that the terrain has drastically changed for the better. The vibrancy and rigour witnessed in recent times only point to the fact that we have a new sense of revival and competition, not only among publishers, but also writers.
A significant number of new authors have emerged and are engaged in interesting experimentations. I get even more excited when they are provoked to defend what they do. This comes with the fury of wounded lionesses.
It is with this understanding that I appreciate the work of the adjudicators who read the works submitted this year. I initially thought that the Vanishing Herds was facing stiff competition from works of younger writers.
But in retrospect, I now understand the redeeming qualities that may have made the judges award Henry Ole Kulet the prize. The strength of this novel lies not in the extraordinariness of the theme, but on the tenor of discourse and the mature control that the author exercises over the narrative.
Unlike his competitors, Ole Kulet has been around for quite some time and has perfected the art of storytelling. His first novel, Is it Possible, was published in 1971. Since then, he has published among others, To Become a Man (1972), The Hunter (1985), Daughter of Maa (1987), Moran No More (1990) and Blossoms of the Savannah (2009).
Some critics have, however, argued that ole Kulet has not received enough critical attention. I think it was Prof Evan Mwangi who, at one time, argued that ole Kulet has suffered from cultural and intellectual marginalisation and that he is a victim of our ethnocentric literary establishment.
My humble opinion is that ole Kulet is a victim of the overbearing lethargy for critical introspection that has become the bane of our literary criticism. Let me explain.
Those who went through our departments of literature in the 1970s and 1980s were not introduced to ole Kulet partly because of the ideological inclinations of the time. The graduates of those years have continued to teach those texts that they were taught and the circle continues.
As an external examiner of a number of our universities, I sometimes I get really irritated when I examine course outlines used in teaching literature. Literature is taught as a subject that was frozen in the literary freezers of the 1960s and 1970s! A course on East African literature will, in most cases contain, Ngugi’s earlier works, Meja Mwangi of the 1970s, Okot P’Bitek’s Song of Lawino among other works of the period.
It appears that our scholars are oblivious to the existence of writers such as Ng’ang’a Mbugua, Kinyanjui Kombani, Onduko Bwa’atebe, Stanley Gazemba, David Karanja, Magiya Manda and Eva Kasaya, among others.
While ole Kulet is, by all standards, a refined writer, he suffers the tyranny of indolence that many other writers suffer at the hands of critics who are trapped in the past.
Comparatively, if Chinua Achebe brought the Igbo culture to the world, then ole Kulet did the same to the Maasai culture. He started by experimenting on the biographical mode and slowly and steadily found his unique style. His subject is culture and he writes about it with the sensitivity of a surgeon.
It is the balanced approach that comes with age that gave Vanishing Herds an edge above the rest. While it may deceptively appear as a simple love story between Norpisia and Kedoki, it flows within a ragged terrain in a changing world that is hostile, not only to values of the society, but also to animals who share the environment with humans.
The mythical aspects of the novel connect the reader to the pulse and spirit of the Maa culture in which the female gender is emerging as an agent of change.
Having won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for the second time, there is no doubt that ole Kulet has cemented his presence on the African literary scene. Literary scholars can only ignore him at their own intellectual peril.
BY PROF EGARA KABAJI
Prof Egara Kabaji is the Director of Public Communication and Publishing at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology (MMUST). [email protected]