The ongoing universal celebration of Ugandan writer Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi is fascinating for the simple reason that the manuscript of The Kintu Saga, her flagship title, nearly did not see the light of day.
After being rejected or utterly ignored by many publishers, it only came into the limelight when it was shortlisted for and won the Kwani? Manuscript Project contest in 2013. Following its publication by Kwani Trust in 2014, it really began going places.
The writer’s most recent triumph came when she was awarded a Windham-Campbell Prize in the fiction category for Kintu, her seminal novel. As she herself has reportedly said, being awarded the lucrative prize took her by surprise, and was beyond her wildest dreams.
SURPRISE PHONE CALL
Ms Makumbi’s sudden success evokes the untold story of the late Kenyan writer Dr Margaret Ogola, whose debut novel, The River and the Source, also nearly went unnoticed. An episode that occurred years ago illustrates how easily the writer could have languished in obscurity.
As it happened, one early morning in 1995 the writer was sound asleep at her home in Nairobi next to her husband, Dr George Ogola.
Suddenly, the phone next to the bed rang long before dawn. Had it come a few hours earlier or later, perhaps being woken up suddenly would have been tolerable to a young couple not yet in their 50s.
But although they were both doctors and were accustomed to calls coming in at all hours of the day or night, that call came at a particularly ungodly hour, disturbing their sleep and somewhat startling them.
I know that because I was the one making the call, despite being aware that I was being a nuisance, and that my conduct was, by all definitions, somewhat uncouth.
Anyway, it was a groggy-sounding Dr George Ogola who picked up the call, whereupon I told him that it was his wife I wanted to talk to, a statement that would have thoroughly provoked any husband lying next to his spouse.
“Just a minute,” he said, summoning all his patience and without betraying any sign of irritation. However, as he woke his wife up and passed the phone to her I thought I heard a stifled yawn from their end.
Regarding Dr Margaret Ogola, a paediatrician, I had met her only once before, for a lengthy interview, but we hardly knew each other well.
Clearly, I was the last person she expected to call her in the middle of the night. I was, however, unrepentant as I quickly passed on the message that had compelled me to make the call in the first place.
Her recently published book, The River and the Source, I told her, had won the coveted Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for best first book, Africa Region, for 1995.
Incidentally, the winner of the best book category for the region that year was none other than the South African writer J. M. Coetzee with his now celebrated title, The Master of Petersburg. He went on to win many other literary prizes.
As for Dr Ogola’s debut novel, to many people’s astonishment, it also won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for literature for the same year, and was later to become a KCSE set book for many years. It was to be translated into several languages, including Italian, Lithuanian and Spanish.
Now listening to me over the phone at that unholy hour of the night, she seemed disinclined to believe that I was serious about her win in the Commonwealth Prize.
“I’ve just heard it over the BBC,” I told her, and challenged her to switch on to the station during its next broadcast in an hour’s time so that she could verify the information.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said, but added that she had no reason to think I was indulging in a prank, at any rate not at that hour of the morning.
If she had indeed won the prize, she confided to me, the accruing finances would be a godsend, as the couple had an imported car stuck at the port in Mombasa for lack of finances to clear it.
The author, who had burst into the Kenyan literary scene in the mid-1990s, had during my first meeting with her come across as a calm, reticent and rather self-effacing person.
My recollection of her is of a comely lady with calm but hardly expressive eyes leering from behind wide, fancy spectacles whose rims rested right on her nostrils.
Her coyness aside, she has been described by Archbishop Zacchaeus Okoth of the Kisumu Catholic Archdiocese as a person who “had that sparkle and smile with each new idea and the passion to see them through from conception to reality.”
My coming to know the writer was courtesy of Sarah Mwangi, the then managing director of Focus Publishers, whom I had met during the 1995 Nairobi International Bookfair.
At the book fair, her relatively new firm, set up by some members of Opus Dei, a Catholic Church order, had a rather small space – actually just a low desk covered with a few titles – and was near another one occupied by writer Asenath Odaga, now deceased.
The latter, also a pioneering Kenyan publisher, was seated next to her husband behind a collection of products of their Kisumu-based publishing company, whose stand was dwarfed by those of the more established ones.
Pausing at the Focus desk, after a quick chat with publisher’s representative Sarah, I introduced myself as the writer of the then fairly popular ‘The Written Word’ column in the Sunday Nation.
In that capacity, I requested and was given a review copy of the Ogola book, an unimpressive one that was the only work of fiction on display at the humble Focus Publishers stand.
The events that followed over the next few months were phenomenal, to say the least, and began with my reading of The River and the Source. Having taken it home with me, I read the first few pages with increasing excitement.
By the time I had completed reading the first chapter, I was absolutely impressed, and simply could not put the book down. The novel was extremely well edited and the unusual story totally captivating.
Just what have we got here, I asked myself, wondering who this intriguing new writer was. Anyhow, I locked myself in my house and finished the novel in one or two sittings.
Having finished it, I knew I had to do a profile of the writer and, therefore, quickly obtained her telephone number from the publisher and set up an interview at her humble practice in Hurlingham.
When I wrote her profile for the Sunday Nation books column, I praised her debut novel to high heavens, amid scepticism from many quarters, including my editor, who thought I was exaggerating the book’s qualities.
The publishers themselves took my views on the book with a pinch of salt, and it was only at my insistence that they entered it for the Jomo Kenyatta and Commonwealth prizes.
I was vindicated when it won prizes in both, and when The River and the Source firmly thrust Dr Ogola into the Kenyan literary scene more than a decade and a half before she passed on in September 2011.
She went on to write other novels, including I Swear by Apollo, which was published in 2002 and was marketed as a sequel to The River and the Source. It was followed by yet another novel, Place of Destiny, in 2005, which won Dr Ogola the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature for the second time in 2007.
Given the author’s mammoth success, to this day I clearly recall that early morning call in mid-1995 and my last chat with the author, whose seventh anniversary since her death will be marked later this year.
Moreover, the fact that few people initially took her as seriously as I did still baffles me.