Remembering a gentle giant: A tribute to Henry ole Kulet - Beaking Kenya News

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Saturday, 20 February 2021

Remembering a gentle giant: A tribute to Henry ole Kulet


When I was 11 or 12, I borrowed a copy of Moran No More, which introduced me to Henry Ole Kulet.

 I must have read the book in the late evenings after school when the wind howled in bursts and sputters and the sun, in a blaze of red, dipped behind coruscating hills, draping the horizon in tantalising orange flashes just before the first bat darted across the bloodshot sky.

In the background, there must have been the voices of my mother and father talking in Taita; the vowels, somehow sadder and more heartbreaking in Taita than in any language I know.

Ole Kulet transported me beyond my then immediate childhood home in the sweltering and sprawling Savannah into a world of literary ecstasy. There was something intriguing about the suspense of withheld information, the story forming and reforming and acquiring a new glow as it unfurled. I devoured it with singular delight, longing to grasp something I couldn’t name.

Carefully-picked words, adjectives that fit and beautiful sentences have always intrigued me. “At night”, a writer once quipped, “the adjectives come back.” It is a sobering thought for writers keen on getting the right adjectives to coin cosmic scenes of unremitting anxiety, palpable sadness or some other tale to capture the human condition.

Metaphorical power

If such is indeed a struggle for some writers, then it was never so for Henry Ole Kulet whose death hit the airwaves on the morning of Wednesday, February 17. Ole Kulet wrote nine books, including To Become a Man, Moran no More, Daughter of Maa, Blossoms of the Savannah and many more.

Blossoms of the Savannah, which was awarded the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature, is a lyrical, beguiling tale written in the metaphorical power of literary greats. All his works show the depth of his literary acumen and his capacity for deconstructing the complicated frictions of cultures, especially the conflict between the traditional norms of the Maasai and the more modern ways of life that threaten to topple age-old traditions. When writing about the breakdown of traditional Maasai norms, there is a tone of anguish in the author, like a lonesome musician playing a melancholy tune on a broken accordion in a forlorn, street corner.

In Moran No More, he decries the stripping of Maasai identity of all its traditional contents and that the traditional obligations that have sustained the Maa community for hundreds of years have been ignored. His message seemed to be: “You no longer leave your heart in Maasai land. The community breaks it”. Even in Blossoms of the Savannah, there is a startling showdown between the traditional versus the modern.

It must have pained the writer that in many cases, the modern has swallowed the traditional. He must have shuddered to think about the future of the Maasai; a future both realised and ruined and at once scary and enchanting. Seeing the modern Maasai through the lens of Ole Kulet’s fiction must be like seeing what Ugandan journalist Kalundi Serumanga describes in his short story, Unsettled, when one can recognise “familiar things now trapped behind a barrier of pain and grotesque abnormality, as you would if you were to meet up with an old friend who has since lost her mind to mental illness.

 The person is still present but no longer there. The form is familiar, but the essential person is not accessible anymore, imprisoned behind a raving, tearful barrier of crazed pain, her eyes a window to the person trapped within, seemingly begging for help in making some kind of escape.”

Red ochre

The red ochre and traditional regalia could still be there but, in some cases, a lot has already been lost. Ole Kulet writes of sunny, serene days when “the rising sun shone on rooftops, giving them a yellowish tinge”. However, like in real life, serenity sometimes turns to chaos; dreams are dashed, shadows are long, eerie and dark – with lurking nondescripts.

In Blossoms of the Savannah, there is a ‘story within a story’ when a narrator recounts an event that took place “a hundred and fifty or two hundred years earlier”. This was during the “rule of Olarinkoi and his tyrannical warriors that were known as Ilarinkon” who invaded the Maasai. He writes of, “tall muscular Ilarinkon morans, resplendent in their red ochre-soaked shukas.

Tall monkey-skin headgear swayed on their heads as they walked. They carried their heavy decorated shields, while their long spears gleamed in the shimmering hot afternoon sun. The jingles fastened onto their thighs made a terrifying clanging sound. This heightened the fearful foreboding that hung in the air.”

That’s a picture of terror. To borrow Joan Didion’s words when describing Hemingway’s writing, this paragraph, “casts exactly what it was meant to cast, a chill, a premonition, a foreshadowing of the story to come, the awareness that the author has already shifted his attention from late summer to a darker season”.

Ole Kulet, however, also wrote about less desperate times; tempering his fiction with some humour, even if sometimes, with some little sigh of exasperation. After all, that’s how real life is – ups and downs.

And now, he has crossed into the land of no return where they probably don’t even count days; hopefully into bright lights. Fortunately, through his fiction, Ole Kulet’s legacy lives on.


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