People

H.R. ole Kulet: Education Should Strengthen the Bonds Created by Culture

H.R. ole Kulet

H.R. ole Kulet

Henry ole Kulet grew up in a village called Enkare-Ngusur in Narok district, Kenya. When the colonial government ordered that all boys be sent to school, his father moved the family to Ilkiremisho, very far from the nearest school. He was eventually enrolled in school where his writing began to develop, encouraged by his teachers. Most of the boys in his high school, being sons of pastoralists, were encouraged to study range management and animal husbandry with the hope that they would improve their livestock. Henry ole Kulet was one the boys who were attached to large scale white settlers to learn farm management with short stints at Egerton College which, at that time, specialised in training dairy technicians and farm managers. He was employed from there as an assistant manager with Kenya Farmers Association. It was while working there that he wrote his debut novel, Is it Possible? He retired at the age of 41 in 1987 as a Personnel Executive in charge of a work force of four thousand employees. The writer of To Become a Man, The Hunter, Maisha ya Hatari, Daughter of Maa, Moran No More, Bandits of Kibi, Blossoms of the Savannah, Vanishing Herds and The Elephant Dance has been awarded the prestigious Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature three times.

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ABENEA NDAGO: First of all, I would like to congratulate you on your novel, Blossoms of the Savannah (2008), becoming a compulsory set text in Kenya’s secondary school English syllabus. It is not a small achievement. How does it make you feel?

H.R. OLE KULET: Thank you. If you will recall Blossoms of the Savannah was nominated for the International Dublin Impact Award in 2008 immediately it was published. It went on to win the 2009 Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. It therefore gave me an early taste of things that were yet to come. Its selection this year as a compulsory set book in the Secondary school English syllabus is good news to me and to my readers. It has given my literary work a wider readership, especially bringing in the younger generation which was my target audience from the beginning. I would say it has also given me a rare moment of elation in an initiative where disappointment often comes faster than celebration.

ABENEA NDAGO: Of course, strictly speaking, that is not new to you. Your debut novel Is It Possible? (1971) was a set text in Tanzanian schools. At a personal level, are there any ways in which you feel the current development is different from the Tanzanian one?

H.R. OLE KULET: That having been the first time that any of my books had been selected as a set book, I was naturally extremely happy when I got the news. Part of the setting of Is It Possible? was in Tanzania, around Arusha and I could therefore visualise that country’s young learners excitedly following book characters as they criss-crossed familiar terrains. That early selection of my book as a set book in a neighbouring country gave me fulfillment especially when I took into consideration the kind of values that were ingrained in the book and which were likely to be imparted to the young learners. It is the same fulfilling feeling I got when I was told of a group of students from Netherland led by their teacher, a Mr Nepper, who annually came to Tanzania following the bush trails that the book character called Lerionka followed from Kenya to Tanzania through Maasailand. Mr Nepper came to visit me a year ago and I was happy to learn of the enormous interest Is It Possible? had created in the minds of young people in his country. However, those feelings are incomparable to what I feel currently after Blossoms of the Savannah has been selected as a set book in Kenya for the secondary school English syllabus. Themes in this book address weightier issues such as Female Genital Mutilation, early marriages and violation of women’s rights, that affect a cross-section of society and indeed affect most of school-going girls. These issues are a cultural endowment in many of the communities in Kenya and in other parts of the world and hence the difficulty in eradicating them. I feel the selection of my book as a set book has afforded a whole generation of young people an important opportunity and a platform upon which to discuss and understand these pertinent issues that affect them and enable them become agents of change in their own communities. Other than these cultural issues, I believe there is a learning experience that each learner will get upon studying this book. 

ABENEA NDAGO: You have been writing for about forty-six years (a blessed number because you were also born in nineteen forty-six). Quite a career. Ten titles to your name, Is It Possible? (1971) being the first, The Elephant Dance (2016) being the latest. In your own view, how do you explain the fact that you had to wait for forty-six years before your novel could be selected as a compulsory set book in Kenya – is your writing that horrible?

H.R. OLE KULET: It is a fact that I have been writing for forty-six years now and that the number of years I have been writing curiously coincides with the year nineteen forty-six the year I was born. I thank the Almighty God for giving me the years and the ability to write.  Could this be a blessed number for me? It could as well be seeing that it is in this forty-sixth year that Blossoms of the Savannah has been selected as a set book in Kenya. However, although the selection of this book as a set book is an important milestone in my writing career, it is not the only recognition I have had within all those years I have been writing. Moreover, the selection of a book as a set book is not a yardstick or criterion for determining how good or how horrible a writer’s work is. Had this been the case, many writers’ works in Kenya would have been termed ‘horrible’ for the simple reason that over the years, very few of of them had had their books selected as set books. Having said that, I would state that my readers determine whether my books are worthy or not. The fact that none of my ten books has gone out of print after all those years tells a story about them. In addition, while Blossoms of the Savannah won Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature here in Kenya in 2009, the previous year (2008) it was nominated for the International Dublin Impact Award. In 2013 another of my novels, Vanishing Herds, once again won The Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. Last year (2017) my latest novel, The Elephant Dance, also won The Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature. These accolades attest to the fact that despite the forty-six year wait before any of my books could be selected as a set book in Kenya, other forms of recognition have been there. Note also that beside Is It Possible? being selected as a set book in Tanzania some years back, Blossoms of the Savannah has also been selected as a set book for ‘A’ level English course in Uganda.

ABENEA NDAGO: In your case, how has the writing act changed over time? Has it become easier, or more difficult? Please tell us know how the actual process of writing was like for you when you started out, and how it feels today.

H.R. OLE KULET: Writing in the early seventies was not easy at all. To begin with there was no one for me to consult on how to write or even how to begin writing a book. Bare in mind that I am a self-taught writer. After scribbling a few pages, I showed them to a school teacher called Sylvia Cornor who liked what I wrote and encouraged me to write more. She later gave me an old type-writer which I used to type the manuscript. She was later to link me with a Mr Osborne who was the Publishing Manager of Longman Publishers who became my first publishers. At that time communication was poor and most of the time Mr Osborne had to travel from Nairobi all the way to where I lived to come and discuss parts of the manuscript. With improved communication and after the advent of technology, writing has been revolutionised so much that the writer today has been set free from the rigours of the then laborious task of writing and left to engage himself with the art of creative writing. Although established writers were still very few in the country in those days, to get published was not easy. And even after getting published the readership was still small and therefore yielding very low book sales. Today, although we still decry the absence of a vibrant reading culture in the country, I would say there is a lot of improvement compared to those early years of my writing.

ABENEA NDAGO: How about the evolution of the themes that interest you? How have they changed, and what do you think has been responsible for whatever may have changed?

blossoms of the savannah

Blossoms of the Savannah

H.R. OLE KULET: Nearly all my literary work is predominantly based on the Maasai culture. Themes therefore revolve around issues that impact on this culture either positively or negatively. The themes in my first two novels Is It Possible? and To Become a Man dwelt on the conflicts that ensued when formal education was introduced by the colonial government to rival the cultural education that taught young men to become valorous men who loved their cattle and were ready to protect them and their people against marauding enemies and predators. In The Hunter, the theme was greed and corruption. Polygamy was the theme in Daughter of Maa, while in Moran No More was the decay of morals in society. In the Bandit of Kibi the theme was betrayal that led to violence. In Blossoms of the Savannah the themes are female genital mutilation, girl-child early marriage and violation of women’s rights. In Vanishing Herds, the themes are environmental degradation, climate change and deforestation. In The Elephant Dance, the themes are wildlife conservation, poaching and corruption. Although I said earlier that my writing is predominantly based on Maa culture, it is important to bear in mind that Maasailand is in Kenya and whatever affects the other parts of the country also affects Maasailand. A writer who lives among his people picks his themes from the observations he makes. Changes in lifestyles of the people, their outlook in life, their aspirations, their successes and failures all go a long way in creating themes for a creative writer.

ABENEA NDAGO: I can bear witness: you are Kenya’s gift to Kenyan Literature. I have observed elsewhere that your novels ooze with what I call ‘savannah prose’. Your sentences leap with effortless agility –what I normally see when gazelles and antelopes flee from predators in our parks and game reserves. How do you achieve that?

H.R. OLE KULET: Right from the beginning when I started writing, I taught myself certain fundamental truths and promised myself to always adhere to them. I taught myself that if I was going to be a writer worth his salt, I must always write out of my observation and experience and do it as if the action of my writing is taking place before my eyes on a bright, sunny day. Nature has already offered me a canvas on which to draw my images. Already on the canvas, which is the physical world, nature has provided hills, plains, bushes and forests, rivers and valleys, and all I have to do is select the scenery I need, describe it and transfer it onto my script. I therefore keep on reminding myself that writing is seeing. If I cannot enable my reader to see that lion or that antelope in my novel in the same physical manner as he would see had it been before him, then I have no business describing it to him in the first place. Although it is not easy making such precise and detailed descriptions, it is always imperative that I do so and therefore I position my mind to imagine that I can see and hear and feel and smell what I am writing about. That forces me to visualise in my mind whatever I am writing about as clearly as if it is happening right there before me on a bright colour screen. That is how I manage writing those detailed descriptions. 

ABENEA NDAGO: All your novels are revolutionary in different ways, but specifically in the manner in which they challenge the oppression of women. In fact, I suspect that one of the reasons Blossoms of the Savannah was selected is because it vociferously advocates against Female Genital Mutilation (FGM), in an era when we all want to see such practices discarded. At least that is how I understand the bond between the two main characters, Resian and Taiyo (helped, of course, by the woman-rebel Minik). Yet, when you spoke at the hall in Kenyatta University in 2015, the clearest thing I remember was your impatience with the way today’s young Maasai men (read ‘the African youth’) cover themselves with red shukas, but they seem to understand very little about Maa culture, which is the essence of the red scarves. In short, you root for Africans to be in touch with their past. How easy is it for an African writer to differentiate between what to support, and what not to, especially in regards to sensitive aspects of culture such as female circumcision, which are part of that ‘past’?

H.R. OLE KULET: Maa culture is great and I love it. It is not only a valuable way of life but it is the indestructible fabric whose cords tenaciously bind its people as an entity and have done so long after so many others had disintergrated. It is appropriately described in Chapter one of Daughter of Maa where it is likened to a tree that grows from a small seedling to become a giant tree. However, even a giant tree continuously sheds leaves and grows new ones. All cultures are dynamic and Maa culture is no exception. Over time they shed off certain aspects that become moribund or are overtaken by time. In Blossoms of the Savannah, examples of such aspects of culture that were discarded over time are given. However, there are certain critical aspects of culture which when they are lost the entire culture suffers irreparably. One of those critical aspects is language. If, for instance, a boxer loses the function of his arm, he may still be called a boxer but in reality, he will never again function effectively as a boxer. In the same way when people lose the use of their language, they soon lose their culture. And although they may still be called by the name in which they were known, it will not take long before they lose even their identity. However, there are certain other aspects of culture that the community is better off losing. For example, the once cherished culture of piercing and extending earlobes among the Maa people, which from an esthetic view was considered chic at the time, many are now happy to see it disappearing. Soon FGM, girl child early marriages and violation of women’s rights will also disappear and will no longer be part of Maa culture. A writer has a critical role to play in sensitising communities to shed off those aspects of culture that are either injurious or no longer serve any purpose in their communities. A good example is the story about FGM narrated in Blossoms of the Savannah. Those who read the book will come to appreciate the reasons why it is necessary to discard the practise, especially when they get to know its traumatic effects on young girls and the health complications it imposes on its victims. Although the writer has no authority to dictate to the society what is and what is not right in their culture, he uses his creative writing to initiate conversation among the people that would hopefully enable them decide what is best for them.

ABENEA NDAGO: You seem to be worried by the fact that Africa usually assumes a double identity when it comes into contact with the West. How painfully does it bite you when indigenous culture loses out to Western culture?

H.R. OLE KULET: Indigenous culture is very clear on what it expects from its adherents. For instance, Maa culture expects its people to live according to an ethos of brotherhood, sharing and caring. If you want to find out those who have discarded the culture you will know them by observing their new lifestyle. They will be living an isolated life, practicing individualism and boasting of their self-sufficiency. In Maa there is a saying that says that ‘there is no one who is self-sufficient, there is only one who is enjoying his blissful ignorance.’ In the fullness of time such people belatedly come to realise that culture anticipated situations that individuals may never have thought will one day affect them. When one sees many of the neo-rich and educated individuals living isolated lives and teaching their children to eschew Maa culture in favour of the western culture, one worries as to what may eventually happen to the cherished culture. However, I see a glimmer of hope in the horizon. Children of those neo-rich individuals who lost the chance to learn the language and the culture of their forefathers are now seeking out help. And as an answer to their cry for help, a group of caring young men who love their culture has started classes at Bomas of Kenya and Ongata Rongai and is teaching Maa language and imparting knowledge and wisdom ingrained in its culture to these young people. One has to see the anguish in the eyes of these young people as they grope in the dark to realise how painful it is for an indigenous culture to lose out to the Western culture.

ABENEA NDAGO: Your novel Daughter of Maa is centred on the theme of polygamy and its decayed nature. The way that Anna Nalangu and Seleina change women’s mentality on the matter suggests that you do not support the practice. I want to know if your very clear positions on these issues usually set you on a war path with those men and women who are still stuck with them? Have you been called names in your home county, Narok, or elsewhere in Kenya?

H.R. OLE KULET: Although, like anybody else, I have my preference in any given situation, I think it is wrong to assume that the direction the novel seems to point toward is the writer’s preferred choice. At times a creative writer intentionally creates in his writing characters whose stand in a given situation may not be obvious. The intention in such cases is to open up discussion and allow debate among protagonists and let them arrive at their own conclusion. I have always known that the question of polygamy is a very emotive subject within most pastoralists communities, Maa community included. The intention from the beginning for embracing polygamy was to enable them have as many children as it was possible in order to have herders and others workers in the homesteads to take care of livestock. Girl-children had the added advantage of bringing in additional livestock when they were married off and dowry received. They also bonded families, creating new relations. Considering these enumerated advantages that polygamy endowed the people through their culture, one has to approach any discussion that suggests its usefulness has come to an end with caution. However, as it is now, polygamy is no longer sustainable economically and therefore it is slowly disappearing as a way of life.

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