Where were the women? East African writing and the 1962 Makerere Conference.

AiW Guest: Anna Adima.

The post-independence period in Kenya and Uganda is renowned for its burgeoning literature production. Uganda was the hub for these literary creativities in the 1960s, largely thanks to the English Department at Makerere University in Kampala, which nurtured the minds of writers who were to become some of the most famous names in African literature. These included Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Okot p’Bitek, or Taban lo Liyong, Ogot The Promised Landas well as Jonathan Kariara, Robert Serumaga and John Nagenda. It was only logical that the 1962 African Writers Conference was held at Makerere, bringing together these and many other celebrated figures in African literature.

It is notable, however, that most of these acclaimed writers were men, and that we know very little about the women writers during this time. In some ways, this is unsurprising: from its creation in 1962 and within its entire first decade, for instance, Heinemann’s African Writers Series only published two women, Nigeria’s Flora Nwapa and southern Africa’s Bessie Head. Most notably, at the Makerere Conference, Grace Ogot and Rebeka Njau were the only women part of the East African delegation.

However, this apparent dearth in East African women’s writing belies the absolute opposite – the vibrant literary culture of the region was also actively produced and Njau Ripples in the Poolsustained by women. Grace Ogot, a nurse by training, and later a diplomat and politician, wrote some of her most notable works in the post-independence period, such as The Promised Land (1966, East African Publishing House) and the short story collection Land Without Thunder (1968, East African Publishing House). Rebeka Njau’s creative writing includes her play The Scar (1965, Kibo Art Gallery, Kilimanjaro), which deals with female genital cutting, and her novel Ripples in the Pool (1975, Heinemann). She most recently penned her memoirs in Mirrors of my Life (2019, Books Horizon) and is heralded by James Currey as “a pioneer in the literary representation of women”.

There were many other women writers in East Africa active at the time, producing work through and into the 1970s and 80s: Charity Waciuma wrote her autobiography, Waciuma Daughter of MumbiDaughter of Mumbi (1969, East African Publishing House), in which she recounts her childhood during the colonial era and the traumatic events of Kenya’s Emergency in the 1950s. Muthoni Likimani’s novel They Shall be Chastised (East African Literature Bureau) and ballad What Does a Man Want? (Kenya Literature Bureau) were published in the same year (1974), cementing her reputation as a writer over a decade before her most famous book, Passbook Number F. 47927: Women and Mau Mau in Kenya (1985, Macmillan). British-born Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s well-known works include Murder in Majengo (1972, Oxford University Press) and Coming to Birth (1986, Heinemann), both of which centre women’s struggles in an independent Kenya. Micere Githae Mugo wrote classics, including The Long Illness of Ex-Chief Kiti (1976, East African Literature Bureau) Passbook Number F 47927 Women and Mau Mau in Kenya Nuria Kenyaand, more famously, the play The Trial of Dedan Kimathi (1976, Heinemann), co-authored with Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. Other Kenyan women also wrote children’s literature, including Asenath Bole Odaga, known for The Villager’s Son (1971, Heinemann), and who actively promoted the use of Luo in Kenyan literature. Pamela Kola is another writer recognised for her children’s books, such as East African How Stories, East African Why Stories (both 1966, East African Publishing House), and East African When Stories (1968, East African Publishing House). 

In neighbouring Uganda, Barbara Kimenye, though Yorkshire-born of English and West-Indian heritage, self-identified as Ugandan, having lived there for many years, and has been described by Nancy J. Schmidt as “one of East Africa’s most prolific children’s Moses Kimenyewriters”. Her Moses series (Oxford University Press), which follows the antics of schoolboy Moses in a Ugandan boarding school, remains popular among East African children today. A similar formidable figure is Elvania Namukwaya Zirimu, whose short story Keeping up with the Mukasas (1965, Heinemann) was published in an anthology of Makerere students’ writing. A decade later, Zirimu delighted audiences with her play When the Hunchback Made Rain (1975, East African Publishing House), written as a critique of the East African post-colonial elite. Rose Mbowa was also a dynamic figure in the Makerere English Department, and her poems ‘Ruin’ and ‘The Game’ were published in the collection Poems from East Africa (1971, East African Educational Publishers). She was later to become a renowned actress in Uganda, and Head of Makerere’s Department of Music, Dance and Drama. A lecture in Mbowa’s memory is held annually in Kampala.

Given the abundance of women’s creativity, why did they not gain the fame male writers did? And why do they remain largely unknown in East African literary histories today? This was mainly due to structural barriers, based on sexism and racism, that prevented African women writers from gaining the recognition male writers such as Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, or Okot p’Bitek did. There was a wide-spread belief that women could not Ngugi wa Thiongo and Micere Githae Mugo, The Trial of Dedan Kimathiproduce works of literary value, and both Rebeka Njau and Asenath Odaga faced prejudice in the false belief that their husbands had written their books for them. Such barriers would also have prevented women from accessing the professional and creative networks that were more welcoming to men, due to other, more pressing, professional or domestic duties. It is interesting to note that Grace Ogot and Elvania Zirimu were both married to renowned literary figures (Bethwel Ogot and Pio Zirimu); it can be argued that they were able to access professional spaces – and therefore, gain fame – in part due to their husbands’ reputations. Most of these women today are largely only known by literary enthusiasts, gracing the occasional footnote in history books (such as James Currey’s Africa Writes Back: The African Writers Series and the Launch of African Literature, or Mukoma wa Ngugi’s The Rise of the African Novel), if they are mentioned at all, which further highlights the androcentric nature of historiographies of Africa. 

Macgoye, Coming to Birth

East Africa today witnesses a lively and dynamic literary scene. Festivals like Writivism attract African writers and fans from across the world. Organisations such as Femrite in Uganda actively promote women’s writing; Jalada Africa, a pan-African writer’s collective in Kenya, publishes work by African authors; and African Writers Trust works to promote ties between African writers and publishers. Many of these organisations are either women-founded or led. Uganda’s Jennifer Makumbi has gained international fame with her novel Kintu (2014) and short story collection Manchester Happened (2019), and Kenya’s Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor dazzled the world with her novels Dust (2014) and The Dragonfly Sea (2019). The vibrancy of the East African literary scene today would not have been possible without the women who helped shape it in decades past – and indeed, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor cites Asenath Odaga, Muthoni Likimani and Marjorie Macgoye as some of her literary inspirations. In celebrating East African literature today, it is important to remember the women who paved its way after independence.


Anna AdimaAnna Adima is a Leverhulme Trust Doctoral Scholar of African History at the University of York, where she is researching the history of women’s writing after independence in Uganda and Kenya. You can follow Anna on Twitter at @anna_adima.



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3 replies

  1. Thank you for all these names of women writers of East Africa, it’s sad that their stories are so little known, sharing knowledge like this is so important, keeping their literary legacy alive.

  2. Thanks you so much for this – a very important piece of history that deserves more attention! I’m just wondering, though, if part of the problem – as you also mention between the lines – is the North-South knowledge gap. That is, these authors were and continue to be most popular on the local market, never receiving international acclaim, and thus seem to be forgotten when, in fact, they might not be? Generally both these books and the books currently published on the local East African market are hardly available internationally (with the exception of the African Books Collective maybe), and also critical works about these books rarely finds its way into the well-know peer-reviewed journals. I’m thinking of writers such as Mary Karooro Okurut and Margaret Ogola, who are really popular and taught at East African universities, but living outside East Africa one can hardly get hold of their books or articles about them. And these are just the writers that I’ve encountered by chance, by living in East Africa for a few years and reading newspaper articles here and there.
    What is more, some women also wrote in their mother tongues, which likewise usually goes unnoticed. Grace Ogot, for example, published four books in Luo that were very popular (according to Oladele Taiwo), making a conscious decision – as early as 1968 – to write in her mother tongue for the majority of the population who live in the villages (as quoted by Florence Stratton). Of course she never got any of the recognition that Ngugi later got for the same philosophy… But also Jonathan Kariara, another Makerere attendee, is known for his English poetry (though also mostly locally) yet not for his activism for Gikuyu poetry and drama, as Peter Amuka recounts in “The Forgotten Heroes of Kenyan Literature” in The Daily Nation.
    This is not to say that it is not a gender bias, but maybe that the knowledge gap is exacerbated by gender inequality – or vice versa?


  1. Creative Writing, Women’s Lives, and East African History – History Workshop

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