Author Henry ole Kulet left behind Maa stories that we must appreciate - Beaking Kenya News

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Saturday, 20 February 2021

Author Henry ole Kulet left behind Maa stories that we must appreciate


Just two weeks ago, there was a ritual to induct new morans into a new age group. The young men would be the guardians of the Maa culture and traditions. They would also be the protectors of the society. The future of the community would depend on their conduct and views.

The future, as it is commonly said, is in the hands of the youth. But it is the older morans who carry the wisdom; who know what the society has been through, what its histories and stories are, and what the future that the young people are transiting into may look like. Which is why the death of Henry ole Kulet on February 17 is very tragic.

Death is a bad reaper. But we also know it is an inevitable visitor into our homes and communities. As such, in some communities mourning the dead is a celebration of what they were, what they did, and what memories they have left for the living rather than a moment of sadness. But how do you mourn an old moran, especially if you are not a moran yourself?

There are people out there who knew Henry ole Kulet better than I did. I only interacted with him four times face-to-face. But I had ‘met’ him at the Kenyan National Library Services in Kisumu when I read Is It Possible? in 1990. I would meet him in real life more than 20 years later in Nairobi when I was invited by the Kenya Publishers Association to be a judge for the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.

It was the rhetorical title, Is It Possible?, that attracted me to the book. What was the title referring to? The book was attractive to me because as a high school student, in Form Two, I was living in a world of dreaming about the possibilities out there. What will I do after school? What could I become?

My teachers would speak about the endless opportunities after school if one passed the KCSE and joined college or university. Sure, I asked myself all the time, ‘Is the world my teachers are talking about possible.’ Thus, you can imagine how I felt when I read Is It Possible?

Educationist per excellence

Henry ole Kulet will be described in ways – there will be a profusion of adjectives, extolling his writing career. But for me he was an educationist per excellence.

His fiction was driven by a strong pedagogic impulse, right from Is It Possible? His storytelling was particular about a lesson that has to be learnt or lessons that have to be conveyed to the reader.

 The narrators in his fiction are teachers in one form or another. Whether they are speaking about culture clash in To Become a Man, or the gender question in a modernising Africa in Daughter of Maa, or reflecting on the consequences of artificial interethnic tensions in Bandits of Kibi, or the tragedy of environmental destruction in Vanishing Herds and The Elephant Dance, the storytellers in these novels appear committed to convey a moral lesson to the reader.

As a teacher, ole Kulet has written for children, the youth and adults. His readership cuts across the society, even though most of his writing has focused on the Maa. The archive of stories that he has left behind should surely cross the boundaries that we have constructed across class, language, level of education or region in this country.

 For this was a man whose writing erased these boundaries even though they were borrowed from his own life. The Maa are probably Kenya’s best cultural gift, yet we haven’t learnt much from them. In fact, many Kenyans still look at the Maasai as objects of curiosity, pretty much as tourists do, than as neighbors with an enduring philosophy of life that we could all borrow from.

It is not surprising that ole Kulet always sought his inspiration from an environment and a people he was more familiar with. This is what great writers have always done – they write about life that they have experienced, stories that they have heard firsthand, dramas they have witnessed etc, fertilised with their own imagination.

Maa culture

So, when I later read ole Kulet’s fiction at university and started to teach it, I was strongly drawn to his evocation of the Maa environment, the Maa people, Maa culture, the Maa cosmology etc. I had read The Oral Literature of the Maasai by Naomi Kipury but till I read ole Kulet’s fiction I had not encountered a Kenyan writer whose sensibilities were as focused on ethnic community as he was.

But ole Kulet’s books are not anthropological or sociological texts. However, one imagines that a century from now, when Maa culture will have probably been overly diluted by modernity, these books may be a great source of information for the general reader or scholars or the Maasai who will still wish to know how their community lived before.

It is this ‘how’ the Maasai have lived to date that ole Kulet has always grappled with in his books. How have they adapted to the environment? How have they related to their neighbours? What cultural practices have served them (and possibly which ones have outlived their usefulness)?

 What can today’s generation learn from the past? What is the future of the community in a world that is changing fast, with a population that is growing, and a land that is assaulted by environmental degradation etc?

Henry ole Kulet has posed these questions, primarily to the Maa but broadly to Kenyans. Which is why even though we may read his writing as addressed to his people, we need to acknowledge that he is inviting us into a conversation with his people, thus including us into his definition of his people – as Kenyans.

Maasai ecology

There is no author in this country in the recent past who has been more concerned about the environment as ole Kulet. His Vanishing Herds should be a reader in schools of environment and economics – how will the Maasai survive once the land on which they have depended for millennia is wasted and they cannot graze their cows?

What does the probable collapse of the Maasai ecology, which sweeps across a large part of the country from the Rift Valley into Tanzania, mean for the rest of Kenyans? Their cattle supply milk, meat, hide; their ecosystem is the backbone of much of Kenya’s tourism. Yet I hazard that many environmentalists have never heard of this novel.

How many feminists or womanists in this country have read Blossoms of the Savannah? Would such feminists recognise ole Kulet as a co-traveller in their struggles against early marriage for young girls?

I have never heard this novel cited by women activists against female genital mutilation. I am not sure that it is on reading lists in institutions that teach gender or women studies in this country.

Even as a set book for the English/Literature KCSE paper, Blossoms of the Savannah is largely taught as a story to be read and examined rather than an invitation for a larger public discourse on questions of gender, equity, justice and progress.

If we have to mourn Henry ole Kulet properly, we need to thoroughly appreciate the catalogue of stories that he has left us about the Maa people but more importantly us Kenyans.


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