Margaret Ogola was a writer who pursued her subjects with an unwavering conviction. She left no reader in doubt that her first published book, The River and the Source, was about redeeming the spirit, soul and body of the woman in Kenya. Women characters in The River and the Source claim, insist on, work for and get what they want.
For Margaret Ogola, women were never the weaker subjects. She seemed to suggest, in her fiction, that only bad sociology, anthropology and psychology would suggest that women can only succeed when they piggyback on men; and that a fair examination of women’s lives in this country would show that our cucus [grannies], mamas, daughters, sisters or aunts are where they are, professionally, or have what they have, materially, because in many cases they have worked just as hard a the men in the lives or in their communities. In other words, one abiding feature of Ogola’s fiction is contestation of stereotype.
Kenyan politics - now
It is this challenge to prejudicial labels that defines her last novel, Mandate of the People (Focus Publishers, 2012). This posthumously published book is a call for the privileged to engage more critically with public issues. It is about Kenyan politics, about Kenya now, today and tomorrow. Ogola foregrounds the book’s focus with the chapter title, “On the Campaign Trail”, and writes:
“The parliamentary term had come to a close and the election campaigns for the next one were in full swing. Gervase Gwalla Kitambo – popularly known as GK by the electorate, clan members, and hangers-on of every type was on the campaign trail in the constituency of Migodi North.”
Now, this is a description of the thousands of aspirants for party nominations for various political office in the past few weeks and it will be the fate of hundreds who “succeeded” in getting those coveted “certificates” of nomination.
Indeed, the rest of the novel is the story of one Adam Leo Agade. Adam, as the writer prefers to refer to him, is a child of the slums, growing up in the care of a single mother after the death of the biological father and foster father (not that the foster father ever knew that the child was not his). Adam, as in many such cases, was born a genius. He breezes through school, gets employed by a multinational company and opts out to establish a business with his friend Job Parseen.
When we meet Adam, he is considering entering politics. His wife, Suzanna Talam, otherwise known as Zanna, has just convinced him to vie for the Migodi North Constituency seat, although, family man and dedicated businessman that he is, he has serious doubts about the venture.
One of his worries is that he isn’t a son of Migodi North. That’s his mother’s birthplace. So, how does Adam expect to succeed in Kenyan politics, in which regional, ethnic, clan and family origins and connections are the primary considerations? A man’s or a woman’s goodness or industry or wisdom may count for nothing in politics in this country if one isn’t a native of the place where one seeks political office. Unless it is in the towns and cities. But Adam refuses to contest in an urban constituency where his chances of success are high. The question that Ogola poses in Mandate of the People is about “running against received wisdom”.
Holding a mirror up to youth
Adam eventually wins the seat. His strategy is simple but effective. He relies on community mobilization using young men and women whom he had assisted before to establish a local farming enterprise, Kenya Integrated Youth Organic Out-growers project (KIYOO). The acronym, which can also be read as kioo, the Kiswahili word for mirror, aids the youth of Migodi North to re-examine their lives (look into their social and cultural realities) in order to “see” their true worth. And that worth is in self-help entrepreneurship. The primary entrepreneurial activity for which Adam supports these youth is farming. The campaign team that Adam puts together, mainly made up of the youth of Migodi North, is then known as Mirrors. His competitors are the veteran politicians, Gervase Gwalla Kitambo and John Japheth Sori, both natives of Migodi North.
Adam’s campaign slogan, Pamoja Twaweza, reminds one of the hundreds of slogans on campaign posters decorating walls, trees and any standing object with a surface on which to pin a piece of paper throughout the country. Indeed, this motto is about solidarity, about sharing burden and gain, about rallying energy and resources for individual and collective good, about partaking of public good, according to one’s ability and need. The economic imperative here, the philosophy of production, exchange and consumption is one that first recognizes each individual’s shortcomings but their right to a decent life.
But Adam nearly loses it all after a bruising and often brutal campaign. He is shot in the stomach by unknown assailants. But he cheats death through sheer determination, despite the bullet having lodged itself in the spine. He is later sworn in as an MP, a limping man, walking with the aid of a cane, but having beaten the odds stacked against him.
Challenging the apolitical middle class
Adam’s story is Ogola’s refusal to concede ground to naysayers in this country. It is her attempt to confront the stereotype of the apolitical middle or business classes in Kenya. It is her engagement with the question of youth and intergenerational transition in Kenyan public life. This is Ogola’s most forthright argument about the urgent need for all Kenyans to reengage with the problems of poverty that afflicts millions of Kenyans in the country’s cities and the countryside; to honestly create opportunities, provide incentives and an appropriate education for the millions of idling young Kenyans to participate in economic production; to rethink our political culture – probably a more urgent proposition right now in Kenya than ever before – or else remain condemned to stagnation and underdevelopment; but foremost, to remain committed to the idea(l) of a united, familial, society. This is a story of hope but as well of the tragedy that stalks a society that relaxes its guard against evil.
In Mandate Ogola dispenses with subtleties and niceties. She tells the story as it is and as it should, therefore, be told. It is a brutal and honest depiction of the chicanery, dishonesty and devilishness of politicians. But at the same time it is a strident call for the rest of us not to just stand by and complain. Instead, like Zanna, Adam and the Mirrors who volunteer to campaign freely for Adam, we must do something about the politics of the day.
Some people will read Mandate as a mere political commentary. For sure, it is a political commentary, although not in the mode of the plentiful political opinions intended for propaganda. If it is propaganda, then its intent is to propagate the injunction, to those who will read, that no one can afford to sit on the fence and be uninterested in the politics of the day, because the risk is that we shall end up with “eating chiefs” instead of leaders, as we did in 2007. Those chiefs eat because they have the “mandate of the people”, as they are wont to remind those who grumble about their nefarious behaviour.
So, Kenyans, wake up early on the 4th of March and go give your mandate to your candidate of choice.
Tom Odhiambo teaches literature at the University of Nairobi. Contact him at Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org
Book inquiries: Focus Publishers, Nairobi.