In Summary
  • Through our global connections, I have always felt a special closeness to Aidoo, a legend of African feminism and African writing.
  • Howe was a leading fighter in not only the American Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s but also in the parallel Civil Rights Movement.

“Global village” is what Marshall McLuhan, the famous Canadian theorist of communication, called the world in the age of modern communication technology.

This was way back in the 1950s, but it is an even more accurate description today of how small and interconnected the world has become in view of the speed at which messages, people and objects move.

The concept of the global village leapt back to my mind over the past few weeks, not only because of the literally “universal” terror with which the coronavirus has struck the whole of humanity, but also because of three “global” literary women whom I have been celebrating.

Despite the risks of globalisation, I still believe that it is an irreversible process, and our best choice is to embrace it and positively practise it, as seen in the lives and careers of the three illustrious sisters whom I am celebrating.

The three beloved sisters I celebrate today are as far apart as Yala, Accra and New York.

You may remember me boasting, in the pre-coronavirus days, that you could have breakfast in one of these cities, lunch in the second and dinner in the third, all in the course of one day.

GRACE OGOT

Anyway, let us start in Yala, in Siaya County, Kenya. We expected to join Prof Bethwell Allan Ogot “Japuonj” and his family at their home to commemorate and celebrate “Mama” Grace Emily Akinyi Ogot on the fifth anniversary of her departure to “the promised land”.

This year, however, we were not able, for obvious reasons, to congregate and pay our respects at her shrine, as we have done every March 18 since she left us.

We only communicated over the lines our solidarity and our unfailing love for Mama.

My own overwhelming recollection of Grace Ogot is of her sheer, dazzling gracefulness. That may not be a useful critical statement but it is my heartfelt sentiment.

In her presence, you always felt a compelling fascination with her scintillating intelligence, articulateness, vast knowledge, provocative humour and, especially, her empathy, that subtle assurance that she was genuinely interested in you as a person. What more could one desire in an acquaintance?

Now, however, looking back at Grace Ogot’s brilliant life and career from a global perspective, I believe that her international education, exposure and lifestyle significantly enhanced her inborn character and talents.

AMA ATA AIDOO

We should not take for granted as mere biographical details the processes of her education in Nyanza, Western Kenya, Uganda and Great Britain.

These, as well as her working experiences at hospitals in Kampala and London, and the pioneering stint of broadcasting at the BBC, contributed to polishing Grace Ogot’s sterling personality into the confident, broad-minded, public-spirited leader that she was.

Indeed, the advantages of this internationalist, cross-cultural educational and professional exposure shows clearly in most eminent personalities of Grace Ogot’s generation and those of a generation or two after her.

On March 23, for example, we celebrated the 78th birthday of Ghanaian author, academic and former Education minister Ama Ata Aidoo.

To many Kenyans below 50, Ama Ata Aidoo is probably best-known for her brilliant shot stories, her plays, like "The Dilemma of a Ghost", and her internationally acclaimed novel Changes, which frankly addresses such crucial issues as marital rape and women’s view of polygamy.

Older Kenyans, however, know that Prof Aidoo is family. She lived and worked in Kenya, teaching for several years at the then Kenyatta College, now Kenyatta University.

GLOBAL CONNECTIONS

Her daughter Kinna Likimani, a prominent figure on the Ghanaian cultural scene, is also Kenyan-born.

Prof Aidoo made several close friends in Kenya, closest and most eminent among them being her fellow poet, the late Jonathan Kariara.

I first met her face to face at the FESTAC77 African Arts Festival, in Lagos, Nigeria, in 1977.

We had agreed to meet and compare our East African notes, but alas, I did not keep the date. But Prof Aidoo did not write me off.

Ten years later, she invited me to Harare, Zimbabwe, to help her judge the Commonwealth Writers Prize, of which she was the Africa regional chair.

That is where, with her and South African writer and academic Njabulo Ndebele, I discovered Tsitsi Dangarembga’s explosive first novel, Nervous Conditions.

Imagine the pride and honour I felt when, on replacing her as the prize chair, I presented her winning novel, Changes, to the Commonwealth Panel in Canada in 1992.

Anyway, the long and short of it is that through our global connections, I have always felt a special closeness to this legend of African feminism and African writing.

FLORENCE HOWE

Did I tell you that I received my FEMRITE (Uganda Women Writers Association) membership certificate from Prof Aidoo’s hand when she visited us in Kampala in the early 2000s?

The third of my legendary global women friends on my mind is American Florence Howe, whose 91st birthday we celebrated on March 17.

Prof Emerita Florence Howe was the founder of the Feminist Press at City University of New York. The Press, which is celebrating its Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary) this year, concentrates on publishing works by women writers, including our own Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye, Ugandan Goretti Kyomuhendo and Tanzanian Elieshi Lema.

Howe’s clear and broad vision, however, always ranged beyond exclusively women’s interests.

In any case, she herself was a leading fighter in not only the American Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s but also in the parallel Civil Rights Movement.

MEN INVOLVED

Thus, she befriended some of us men who subscribed to the woman’s cause. She particularly invited us to work with her and our female colleagues on the innovative Women Writing Africa Project, which produced several Feminist Press publications in the early 2000s.

We did most of our work with Florence Howe at the Rockefeller Study and Conference Center in Bellagio, a beautiful little town on the shores of Lake Cuomo, in northern Italy.

You can imagine my pain at the current Covid-19 agony of that lovely land. Prega per noi (pray for us), the Italians say.

Prof Bukenya is a leading East African scholar of English and literature; abubwase@yahoo.com