Amid jubilation, two leading literary figures were among eminent Kenyan women awarded state honours on Thursday, August 23, 2018.
Kenyan book lovers must have been particularly elated that the two top literary figures – veteran writer Muthoni Likimani and literature don Prof Wanjiku Mukabi Kabira – were among the women recognised.
While Ms Likimani has ventured into the world of fiction and memoir writing, Prof Kabira is mainly renowned for her contribution to the study of oral literature through such titles as The Oral Artist.
Fittingly, the award of last month’s honours coincided with the launching of It’s Possible: An African Woman Speaks, a memoir by veteran woman politician and activist Phoebe Asiyo.
However, during a telephone chat last week, Ms Likimani said she was not unduly excited about being awarded the Order of the Burning Spear, insisting that there are many other Kenyan women who deserve the honour.
She insisted that Kenyan women have been actively involved in matters of national development since the late 1940s and even earlier.
“Non-elite women without political connections have to a large extent been ignored,” she said, pointing out that over the decades there were numerous women involved in such early development ventures as the Mabati Group, set up to ensure that Kenyan families had properly roofed houses.
That venture, she says, was followed by the renowned Matangi women’s group, which tried to ensure that as many rural households as possible had water storage tanks to reduce their domestic water woes.
Among the pioneering women across Kenya who have remained unsung, she says, are the late Maggie Gona at the coast and Tabitha Ogega in Kisii.
Others were Ruth Habwe, Beatrice Shadrack and Priscilla Abwao in Western Kenya.
As for Central Kenya, unsung heroines include Wairima wa Nderitu from Ihururu in today’s Nyeri County and Rahab Kamanda from Murang’a, while in the Eastern region there was Ruth Karanga from Embu.
Explaining that she has received other national, continental and global honours in the past, Ms Likimani said that early this year she was honoured by being invited to the Heads of State Summit at the headquarters of the African Union in Addis Ababa.
She was among a varied group of leading African women, including Phoebe Asiyo, who were honoured by African Heads of State for service to the African continent over the decades.
The Addis gathering focused on reviving the Pan-African Women’s Organisation (PAWO), a women’s body set up soon after the inauguration of the Organisation of African Unity, AU’s precursor.
Inaugurated by the founders of the OAU, the organisation was initially made up of their wives and other members of Africa’s political royalty, but is now expected to bring together top female players in African development.
“During the Addis meeting in January, six of us were tasked with rejuvenating the organisation, which is today based in Kampala, Uganda,” Ms Likimani said.
YET TO BE TOLD TALES
What worries her, though, is the fact that, despite much talk about the issue of gender equity in Kenya, there are many trailblazing women in Africa whose tales are yet to be told.
Indeed, according to some observers, last month's recognition of some of the women came rather belatedly, and still went mostly to politically connected women spread across the echelons of the Kenyan elite. Among those awarded were top women politicians like Phoebe Asiyo, Grace Onyango, Nominated Senator Beth Mugo and former Maendeleo ya Wanawake organisation chairperson, Zipporah Kittony.
Poignantly, all the women bestowed with the higher honour of Elder of the Golden Heart were, perhaps with the exception of Ms Ida Odinga, also veteran women politicians.
Among them were Ms Nyiva Mwendwa, Dr Julia Ojiambo and Ms Margaret Kenyatta, the sister of President Uhuru Kenyatta. The latter, who was the first African woman Mayor of Nairobi, was honoured posthumously.
Still on the honours bestowed last month, what many did not know was that some of them were upgrades, and that many women in the list had been awarded state honours before.
Those recognised earlier included writer Likimani, who had years earlier been bestowed with the Order of the Moran of the Burning Spear, MBS.
This time around she was being upgraded to the Order of Elder of the Burning Spear (EBS).
Explaining that she will be celebrating her 93rd birthday on September 15, the incredibly vibrant Ms Likimani added that she still wakes up at 5am every day and ensures that she writes at least a page a day.
Quipping that Kenyans have become too materialistic in recent times, she says that they spend too much time discussing how to acquire money, plots and other possessions, leaving little time for creative and spiritual endeavours.
To illustrate her point, she repeats a current joke about a lady who recently set out to buy some clothing materials.
“Asked what size of the fabric she wanted,” a jovial Ms Likimani exclaims, bursting into laughter, “the plots-obsessed woman quickly blurted out that she wanted three acres of the stuff!”
Although the indefatigable nonagenarian admits that she’s slowing down somewhat, and often has to use a walking stick, it is remarkable that despite her advanced age she remains one of Kenya’s most prolific writers.
“I thank God for taking care of me,” she writes in the fore pages of her latest novel, My Blood Not for Sale.
Incidentally, the foreword to that book is written by Kenya’s First Lady Margaret Kenyatta. “It is difficult to do justice to the honour due (to) the author, and the attention due (to) the book,” she writes, while describing Ms Likimani as a trailblazer, a history maker and “a woman of many firsts”.
In the foreword to Fighting Without Ceasing, Ms Likimani’s autobiography published in 2005, business lady Evelyn Mungai describes the writer as a person “who has shown that the sky is the limit when you have the determination.”
“I have never ceased to marvel at her great courage and accomplishments,” writes Ms Mungai. “She is a great role model for our women.”
Undoubtedly the surviving matriarch of Kenyan women writers, Ms Likimani has outlived some of Kenya’s pioneer women writers. Among them were the late Asenath Bole Odaga, who died in December 2014, aged 83, and the late Grace Ogot, who died a few months later on March 15, 2015.
Ms Likimani is, however, not the only surviving Kenyan pioneer woman writer, as she has the company of two others, namely Rebeka Njau and the laid-back Charity Waciuma.
This year marks Ms Njau’s 86th birthday and Ms Waciuma's 82nd.
Clearly, even as we welcome younger Kenyan women writers like Caine Prize winners Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor (2003) Okwiri Oduor (2014) and Makena Onjerika (2018), we should not lose sight of the largely unsung pioneers.
Sadly, women writers in the latter group in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa have in the past been dealt a rather mean card.
The writer lives in Mombasa