Creative writing – in the form of prose and poetry – is not the most obvious choice of source for scholars of East African history, with most of us preferring solid archival research and the occasional oral history interview. Indeed, reading and analysing novels, plays or poems is something we tend to leave our colleagues in the Literature Department, or choose to indulge in during our free time. In my research, however, I have found creative writing to be an invaluable primary source, as vital as documents I have studied in archives.
My research examines the history of women’s writing in eastern Africa in the 1960s, a highly politicised decade that saw independence across many African countries, the escalation of the Cold War, as well as increased globalisation. Secondary literature on these developments largely takes a geopolitical perspective, emphasising state structures and institutions, or ‘big man’ politics, with women actors relegated to the sidelines, if discussed at all. I wish to understand how Ugandan and Kenyan women understood this period following the Year of Africa, and how this was reflected in their writing and art. Women were far from removed from the turbulent events that characterised the decade, as they too became involved in – or contributed to – globalisation processes. These influenced their lives in innumerable directions, ranging from choice of higher education and political interests, to fashion and parenting, which many express in their writing.
The limitations of the archival institution during my fieldwork in East Africa quickly became clear: more often than not, national archives in the region are colonial legacies that reflect the interests of those who created them. Therefore, while the Kenya National Archives holds ample documents pertaining to missionary activity or colonial governance, documents that privilege a European male perspective, it is more difficult to find humanising information on African women – information that does justice to their lives as historical actors in all their complexity. As political analyst and writer Nanjala Nyabola argues, this is “not because [women are] uninteresting or even unavailable for documentation; it is because those in power set the tone and the context for what goes into the archive and, subsequently, the stories that history will tell.”
Creative writing, therefore, fills the large gaps that the colonial archive leaves. In examining novels, plays, short stories, poetry, and children’s stories penned by East African women writers, including Rebeka Njau, Grace Ogot, Barbara Kimenye, Charity Waciuma, or Rose Mbowa, I have become aware of the diversity of these women’s experiences, and the richness of their lives and imaginations that enabled them to pen such engaging literature. Though the works are fiction, choices made by the authors on characters, narrative, plot, and themes tell us about their experiences in – and how they thought about – their respective countries post-independence. In a poem titled “I took my son by the hand”, for instance, printed in a school textbook intended for East African children, and published in 1976, the author Micere Mugo questions who Kenyan independence really is for, if working classes in rural areas cannot tell the difference between the new regime and that of colonial rule. Another example is Barbara Kimenye’s short story collection Kalasanda (Oxford University Press, 1965), set in a fictional Ugandan village in the 1960s, in which she charmingly describes her characters’ astonishment at the news of the Russians landing on the moon, brought to them by a lorry driver passing through. Later at night, “all the villagers … stared for hours at the silver orb, disappointed at finding it without the slightest trace of mutilation.”
These works offer a very intimate perspective on the minds of their authors, and, used as primary sources, provide a humanising element to historical events, one which may not necessarily be gleaned as easily from archival institutions from African women’s perspectives. Their writing can also be seen as a socially acceptable way for women to express their opinions on contemporary issues in the public sphere in which they would ordinarily be rendered silent. While East Africa has a long history of oral literature, its written counterpart – especially in English – was still a relatively new field in the region in the 1960s. What was later to become one of Africa’s most vibrant literary scenes was driven initially by expatriate men in Uganda working in the Makerere University Literature Department, and those managing local publishing houses, such as the East African Literature Bureau. Therefore, the broader textual culture surrounding the production of texts by women also poses critical historical questions. Why, for instance, were women more likely to be published by East Africa-based publishing houses, rather than Western-based counterparts? What does this tell us about Western publishing interests? How did women gain access to publishing networks?
Writing and becoming published were challenging task sfor any aspiring author, and even more so for women at the time. In the first instance, finding the time to write was difficult, given, perhaps, more pressing duties, such as childcare, jobs, or survival in the increasingly authoritarian regimes of Milton Obote in Uganda and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya. In the second instance, if publishing depended on access to networks that were easier and more culturally acceptable for men to navigate, this, therefore, made it even more challenging for women’s writing to be examined by publishers. In a patriarchal post-colonial society in both Kenya and Uganda, within the limitations of sexism and racism, African women who were often marginalised in the region’s literary scene turned creative writing into a source of imaginative and real agency
This is not intended as a denigration of the colonial archive or the documents it houses – indeed, I have found plenty of useful material in these institutions. Yet we cannot ignore their limitations. As historians, we are trained to turn to multiple sources, and creative writing is merely one example of how to account for marginalised actors’ experiences. As the field of African History becomes more diverse in scope, so should the way in which we conduct historical research, diverging from more traditional methods, to allow for more inclusive readings of the past.