A tribute to Asenath Bole Odaga: The queen of folklore - Daily Nation

A tribute to Asenath Bole Odaga: The queen of folklore

Saturday December 6 2014

Asenath Bole Odaga, who died this week at the ripe age of 80 in Kisumu. For nearly five decades, Ms Bole Odaga researched and published on African traditional literature. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH

Asenath Bole Odaga, who died this week at the ripe age of 80 in Kisumu. For nearly five decades, Ms Bole Odaga researched and published on African traditional literature. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH 

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In Luo oral traditions, the nomenclature for ending a story is Thu Tinda. Loosely, it can be approximated to Amen, the Christian affirmative statement during worship, itself borrowed from Hebrew language, and means and so be it.

Asenath Bole Odaga, who died this week at the ripe age of 80 in Kisumu, adopted Thu Tinda as her literary signature and trade mark.

A bookshop she operated for years in Kisumu was christened Thu Tinda, and one of her seminal books was entitled: Thu Tinda: Stories from Kenya, which was published in 1980.

The Thu Tinda motif was later to percolate even through the radio talk shows she hosted in a vernacular radio station, where she discussed pertinent cultural issues.

The signature tune she adopted aptly captures her adoration for, and dalliance with oral literature. She wrote, practised and lived oral literature and remained true to the canons of traditional wisdom.

For nearly five decades, Ms Bole Odaga researched and published on African traditional literature. She dabbled in different genres of literature — children stories, short stories, novels, literary criticism and oral literature. However, it is in oral literature that she made the greatest contribution.


In the early years of independence, the study of literature in schools and universities was confined to Western literature, which was part of the wider scheme of colonial subjugation.

In this ideology, Africa did not have literature worth studying. Yet there was evidence that Africa had rich corpus of knowledge worth studying in any literature class.

Prof Austin Bukenya, who writes regularly in this column, had co-authored an illuminating academic paper with Pio Zirimu on what they called orature, which made compelling argument for teaching of African literature in schools.

In coining the term orature, Prof Bukenya and Zirimu argued that what were erstwhile described as mere folklores were indeed rich pieces of art that lent themselves to rigorous academic study.

With evidence from academic research and the desire to Africanise and give dignity to African literature, the likes of Ngugi wa Thiongo and Peter Anyumba led a crusade in the late 1960s to reform the then Department of English at the University of Nairobi and which was subsequently renamed the Department of Literature to connote the distinctiveness of English and Literature and, most importantly, opened the doors for teaching of African oral literature.

At the time, Bole Odaga was a lecturer at the university’s Institute of African Studies, where she contributed immensely to the debate on Africanisation of education. Her MA thesis was precisely on African oral literature and was aptly entitled: “Education values of the Kenyan Luo Oral Narratives.” It located oral literature within the corpus of academic knowledge and demonstrated its richness as a subject of study. She was later to publish the thesis into a book in her sunset years - just three years ago.

The campaign to Africanise the teaching of English Literature was cascaded down to the school level, with a watershed conference of English teachers convened at Nairobi School in 1974 that culminated in the introduction of oral literature in schools.

Even so, teaching of oral literature in schools and university was a challenge due to lack of written texts.

Given its form and format, where content is passed by word of mouth and the narratives changed character and setting depending on the narrator, teachers, most of whom had been trained on the tradition of English literature, had difficulty cracking the subject.


Thus it fell on the likes of Ms Bole Odaga to provide written texts to anchor teaching of the subject. She researched, collected, distilled, interpreted and published widely on oral literature, augmenting the numerous short stories she had always done, also drawing themes, characters and setting from local settings.

Notably, her 1982 publication, Oral Literature for Schools and Yesterday’s Today: The Study of Oral Literature (1984) were to provide vital reading materials for oral literature students, joining the ranks of Keep My Words by Onyango Ogutu and Adrian Roscoe, and African Literature for Schools by Jane Nandwa and Austin Bukenya, among others.

Significantly, Bole Odaga later ventured into an area least walked, researching and publishing Dholuo-English Dictionary in 2005, which became a trend setting publication and an essential reference material for those seeking mastery of Luo language.

Cumulatively, Bole Odaga published more than 30 titles, comprising texts for children, short stories, novels, literary criticism and reference materials.

To her credit also, Bole Odaga was not just a writer, she was also a business woman. At a time when most writers sought established publishers to produce their works, she set up her own publishing firm, Lake Publishers, in Kisumu.

And from that she went ahead to set up the Thu Tinda bookshop that was to be known for promoting African literature, among them vernacular books that hardly attracted the established and mainstream booksellers.

Her other life was in gender movement, where inter alia, she played a pivotal role in organising the United Nations Decade for Women conference held in Nairobi in 1985.

In particular, she ran a successful non-governmental organisation that supported the cause of women. Unlike those who took to activism, her Gender Development Centre distinguished itself as a practical-oriented outfit that offered financial literacy to women and gave them the skills to raise funds and carry out small-scale and profitable businesses.

She was also involved in campaigns to support girls’ education, offering talks in schools and conducting public sensitisation on gender issues through a vernacular radio station.

Born in Koguta Location, Nyakach, Kisumu County, Bole Odaga had her earlier education locally before joining Ng’iya Girls, then a renowned top school for female achievers, and later Alliance Girls High School before joining the University of Nairobi to study literature.


Thereafter, she pursued a master’s degree and later enrolled for a PhD. However, she quit the university before completing her doctoral studies to set up her publishing business in Kisumu.

She kept talking about her stalled doctoral programme for years even in old age. But what she did not accomplish in academics, she compensated for in research and publication.

She is survived by husband James Odaga, son Peter and daughter Adhiambo Odaga. Bole Odaga was the sister of Dennis Akumu, the veteran unionist and a two-time MP for Nyakach.

Bole Odaga may have exited the scene, but she made an indelible imprint in the literary world through her volumes of writings that gave dignity to African traditions and values.

Rest in peace nyar plateau. Thu Tinda.