ABENEA NDAGO: Most people will tell you, ‘But polygamy was sometimes extremely necessary in our African context!’ How do you usually respond?
H.R. OLE KULET: Unlike other aspects of the indigenous culture, polygamy has had its own upheavals that have slowly driven it out of the homesteads even though against the wishes of many who would have wanted to maintain it as a way of life. As I said earlier, at one time polygamy was extremely necessary in the homesteads as a means of supplying necessary labour. At that time cost of living was cheap as people lived only on the animal products obtained from the animals they tended. Since then things have drastically changed. Farms have shrunk, it is no longer possible to keep large herds of cattle, children go to school where parents pay fees, cost of living has sky-rocketted in addition to other costs that are brought about by modern living. In all this, polygamy has found itself a casualty. But paradoxically, the educated who are also affluent members of the community and who were the first to eschew polygamy, are now the ones embracing it as a new way of flaunting their riches. In addition to the old polygamy known for ages, a new mutant called ‘mpango wa kando’ has mutated, complete with parallel families, and it is now the new form of polygamy. When confronted the people who practise it shout loudest saying polygamy was an extreme necessity in our African context.
ABENEA NDAGO: You are even blunter in To Become a Man, where the depiction of the protagonist, Leshao, clearly shows that time is up for cattle-rustling. You show that the institution of ‘moranship’ has to give way. And this was published in 1972. Did it not cause you problems specifically in the Maa world?
H.R. OLE KULET: I think I was a realist from the beginning and time has proven me right. In the past the institution of moranship was not only necessary but it was the backbone of the Maa community. It was a standby army that protected the community from external enemies and from the ever-present threat of predators that killed their livestock and at times killed or maimed some of them. The community also depended on them to increase their herds by raiding other communities and forcefully taking away their cattle. When it became compulsory for boys to go to school and it became untenable for one community to raid another and take away their livestock, the morans became redundant. When national institutions providing security services were put in place the need for morans to serve as a standby army became unnecessary. At that time many did not understand what I was saying and a few castigated me but today all this has come to pass. I remember stating in those early years of the 70s that it was necessary for writers to document Maa culture so that comparison could be made many years later to determine whether there was noticeable change in their way of life. I think that statement rings true today than it did then.
ABENEA NDAGO: Reading Is It Possible?, I felt that what Lerionka goes through when he abandons school in Kenya and flees to Tanzania is titanic. And yet it is a fair representation of what the clash between tradition and modernity actually was in the early years of contact between African and Western cultures. It is an issue that Moran No More follows up on. How big is that gap today?
H.R. OLE KULET: What Is it Possible? was trying to portray at that time was that although Lerionka was running away to Tanzania to escape ‘the monster’ that school was thought to be by the elders, the same education he was running away from had also reached Tanzania where he was fleeing to and he therefore ended up going to school there. Obviously, it was not easy for the community to accept the revolutionary concepts that modernity was forcefully thrusting into their way of life which, according to them, did not need any sort of intervention by the white man.
However, what we learn is that in both cases, Lerionka of Is it Possible? and Roiman of Moran No More found accommodation in modern schooling and quickly accepted its gains. The gap has been narrowing since then. The drawback has only been when the young men complete school and they do not get employed and soon they have nothing to show for the education they got. This was the dilemma that faced Leshao of To Become a Man when he could not get a job after school and returned home to join a group of raiders that attempted to raid a neighbouring community, but were repulsed and many of them were killed. Leshao ended up losing a leg and was terribly devastated and his father was disillusioned. When Roiman of Moran no More did not get employment immediately after leaving school, he had the same misgivings about education vis-avis the care-free life his father advocated.
ABENEA NDAGO: What is the role of the African writer in addressing the gap?
H.R. OLE KULET: The African writer has no choice but to continue sensitising his audience through his writing, especially the young readers. He realises and accepts that despite the misgiving and disillusionment brought about by lack of employment after school, education is still the better option. However, education does not mean the abandonment of culture. In fact, education should strengthen the bonds created by culture through empowerment of such institutions like councils of elders, groups formed by age groups and women. Education should also sensitise these indeginous people to know and fight for their rights, such as the right to their brand, the right to get compensated for the loss of their lands through historical injustice and their right to life without being discriminated. This is the writer’s role in narrowing the gap.
ABENEA NDAGO: Elsewhere you are quoted thus: “When you say things in black and white you stop being an artist and become an activist. Creative writers ought to be subtle. They merely dissect society so that people can see things for themselves.” One might wonder exactly how viable that is, especially here in our continent, where everything that is wrong seems to have been created without ears? I mean that bad leaders have put wax in their ears, and they will not respond unless the writer unplugs the ear –what do you think?
H.R. OLE KULET: In the olden days singers and poets corrected, warned and even rebuked leaders through their songs, dances and poems. They did this without being arrogant or unduly explicit. They still do. In my opinion a subtle approach by a creative writer when pointing out ills in society enables him to cleverly juxtapose problems with possible solutions. He does this knowing that sometimes leaders rightly or wrongly impute wrong motives to those who loudly prescribe solutions to problems. Often they think such people are out to challenge their leadership by maligning them. In many cases such an approach becomes counterproductive. I believe when an astute creative writer presents his case to his readers with considerable subtlety and subsequently a debate ensues regarding the issues raised, the authorities are likely to listen to the voice of the people and institute the required change.
ABENEA NDAGO: Now to politics and our limitations as human beings. You published Bandits of Kibi in 1999, and it was a spot-on prophecy of the 2007/2008 Post-Election Violence (PEV) that engulfed Kenya eight years later. You lost your own son to that violence in Narok. As a human being, do you sometimes wish that you were able to foretell and warn your son early enough?
H.R. OLE KULET: No doubt that Bandits of Kibi was a spot-on prophecy of the post-election violence that were to bedevil the country in the 2007/2008 period. The prophecy was weird in that what happened to Ras Mento, the main character in the novel when he lost his son, Harry Lanto, to the violence, also happened to me when I lost my son Linus Lekishon during the clashes. But I believe what has to happen will always happen no matter what. Had we been given powers to foretell and forewarn, this world would have been heaven for there would have been no deaths. We have to be content with the fact that those powers were not given to us and so all we can say is: what had to be, became. And that was that. We can, however, say the cause of the chaos that brought deaths and destructions could have been avoided had the politicians not courted violence.
ABENEA NDAGO: There was a lot of violence in Narok. In your opinion, why is the Narok story still very little-known to most Kenyans, when it was just as heart-rending as Naivasha, Nakuru, Eldoret, and even Kibera?
H.R. OLE KULET: The violence was widespread and reporting depended on whether there were reporters on the ground. In my opinion Narok received its fair share of reporting considering the magnitude of the problem that spread to nearly all corners of the country.
ABENEA NDAGO: Still on Bandits of Kibi, the reader sees that there are characters from different ethnicities in Kenya. Was this conscious?
H.R. OLE KULET: I think all what I can say is that what was said in Bandits of Kibi in 1999 became a reality eight years later (2007/2008) in that the battles that were fought in those clashes involved different ethnicities in Kenya. One could foretell that such a situation was possible given the instigations and incitement to violence that were evident from time to time at the time.
ABENEA NDAGO: Are you worried that most Kenyan writers still write as if there is no country at all, as if tribes still live in a certain ethnically Edenic past, where all characters bear names from single communities? Or if the names are mixed, then negative traits are slapped onto characters that do not belong to the author’s tribe?
H.R. OLE KULET: In a multi-ethnic society like we have in Kenya often a creative writer is placed in a dilemma. It is like ‘if you do it you are damned and if you don’t you are damned’. In cases where the names of the characters in the novel are mixed the author has to be very careful in the manner he allots roles. Negative roles such as those of murderers, rapists or robbers are often offensive to the ethnic community to whom they are assigned. Those that are heroic are celebrated. In order to avoid offending ethnic sensibilities often an author resorts to using the names of a single community, preferably his own or neutral names in an imaginary country.
ABENEA NDAGO: You once narrated to me what transpired between you and a certain well-known Kenyan politician in the 1980s. And how that occurrence left a permanent scar on your life. No doubt that incident forms part of the reason you initially shied away from engaging with overtly political themes. I am happy that the ghost has finally gone away, and, gradually, there is more political engagement in the progression from Bandits of Kibi to The Elephant Dance. Should your readers prepare for more political writing in the coming years?
H.R. OLE KULET: My writing has not had a predetermined road mark in the past and I do not intend to create one now. Usually I am inspired by situations or events that I observe as they unfold over a period of time. Such events or situations are never about individuals but about society and how they impact it. Individuals come and go but society will always be there. Perhaps what my writing should point out in future is the futility of an individual trying to destroy the human soul in the short lifespan allotted to him in this world.
ABENEA NDAGO: How did you feel when the 2010 Kenyan Constitution invented the position of Woman Representative?
H.R. OLE KULET: I come from a community whose women have had little or no say at all in matters that affect them, their children or the community in general. In my community women do the donkey work. They build houses, maintain them, fetch firewood, draw water, milk cows, feed the calves, cook and feed the children. When the 2010 constitution invented the position of Woman Representative I breathed a sigh of relief hoping that the women will now have a voice that will champion their issues. Only a slave would undertake all those roles but without a say in them. Women should be recognised as equal partners not only in their homesteads but in all county and national matters that affect society.
ABENEA NDAGO: You have a reputation for being very private. Do you have regrets about that personality, considering how lesser writers who consciously seek publicity receive all the attention and attendant benefits?
H.R. OLE KULET: I do not think I have lost much by not seeking publicity. It is my own contention that too much publicity retards creativity.
ABENEA NDAGO: Your books deserve more attention than they are getting. Do you think the fact that you are perceived to be publicity shy has something to do with it?
H.R. OLE KULET: I may be wrong but I have always told myself that my publisher and I share roles. While I do my best to create novels that will interest readers, my publisher who is my partner in this business of producing and popularising books would do the publicity part.
ABENEA NDAGO: A profile of you by Kipkoech Sigei quotes you as saying: “It is unethical for a writer to become a vendor peddling books in the street.” It has been about a decade since you reportedly said that. Has your position since changed, considering that modern publishing contracts require writers to co-promote their books, especially in this social media era where a book can become a bestseller just from good online promotion?
H.R. OLE KULET: What I meant, and still maintain, is that once a writer begins hawking his books in the streets, he will of necessity start praising his wares, in the same manner hawkers do, with the sole purpose of maximising sales. Once he takes this role, his original one as a creative writer takes a beating. One is bound to ask the question: When does he write and when does he sell? In an endeavour to sell more this writer-turn salesman is likely to resort to being mendacious as he tries to present his book as the best money can buy. However, I believe promoting one’s book on the internet is acceptable. There is nothing wrong with a writer informing his readers the availability of his books and leaving them with the choice of perusing their content and purchasing them without undue pressure to do so from him.
ABENEA NDAGO: Your other quote is this: “My satisfaction comes when I know that I have imparted knowledge. If money comes in the process so be it.” Why do you not like money? Or do you not think a writer should be able to live on writing?
H.R. OLE KULET: I think I was just being realistic. In Kenya, unless a book is a set book or a school text book, the sales are usually so low that a writer can hardly live on the book sale proceeds. The situation is bound to change in future as the reading culture improves and many more people begin reading for pleasure rather than for the sole purpose of passing exams. Had I pegged my writing on monetary expectation, I would not have written. I know a number of would-be writers who abandoned writing when they realised that there was no immediate monetary reward in writing.
ABENEA NDAGO: Lastly, all writers have their peculiarities. Yours is to do with the naming of your female characters. How do your daughters generally react to that very interesting habit of yours?
H.R. OLE KULET: I would not have called this a peculiarity. I think what it shows is how interactive and intertwined my life is with my writing. You will find that in those cases where the book characters bear similar names to those of my daughters, I was either writing the book at the time the girl was born and therefore took the name of the main female character in the book or she was born when I was contemplating writing the next book and when I therefore began writing the female character borrowed the name of the newest member of the family. However, not all the female characters in all the books bear similar names to those of my daughters. The girls love the fact that their father named his books’ characters after them. They call those books whose characters are named after them their own. The girls are now grown-ups and they often joke among themselves when discussing the characters in the books that bear similar names to their own.