In 1967, a young Maasai man clad in a red shuka walked from Enabelibel in Narok District to Nakuru town to meet a Mr Griffin, then the Agricultural Officer in charge of Rift Valley Province. He immediately offered him a job as an assistant manager, Kenya Farmers Association, Kericho branch. This short anecdote best captures writer Henry ole Kulet’s humble mien, which belies his go-getter personality. He says he was offered the job because he was “very Maasai”. What he does not say is that in the previous year he had scored straight As in his O-level exams.
Little in him betrays an accomplished writer who has authored nine novels in an illustrious career that has spanned 46 years. But when the 70-year-old who eschews publicity begins to speak, you immediately notice a sharp, restless mind impatient to explain the principles behind his writing. He says his life-long concern in his fiction is best captured in the first paragraph of Daughter of Maa, his most humorous and acerbic novel. It is the story of an otherwise quiet village that is stirred into a frenzy of activity by the arrival of a young and pretty community teacher, Anna Nalang’u.
He reads from the book: “If you have been to a family festival in the Maa village, you may realise you are watching the full flowering of a tree which grew tenaciously from a mere seedling among many others which died because they were less sappy, fibrous and persistent. But this society has survived; it is now a complex organism adapted to its environment, thriving and bearing fruit.” This is his metaphorical explanation of how the Maasai have been able to maintain their culture in a porous society prone to external influence. Careful not to be seen to romanticise the Maa culture, he clarifies that there has actually been a subtle cultural shift to what he calls a hybrid identity.
While he lauds Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o and novelist Kamara Laye for having inspired him to write through their novels, he takes issue with Ngugi’s latter works for being ‘explicitly activist’. “When you say things in black and white you stop being an artist and become an activist. Creative writers ought to be subtle. They merely dissect society so that people can see things for themselves.” On the recurrent debate about the challenges of publishing in Kenya, ole Kulet takes issue with the condescending attitude of some publishers towards writers. “In the West, for instance, publishers indicate clearly in their advertisement what genres they are dealing with unlike here where authors simply receive rejection slips saying ‘we don’t deal with that genre’ when in the first place the publishers had not said what they are publishing!”
He has a word of encouragement for upcoming writers, though: “If you have a story to tell, don’t let problems discourage you. Some manuscripts which were rejected have made masterpieces when they were accepted by other publishers.” He, however, disagrees with some who suggest writers should participate in the marketing of their books. “It is unethical for a writer to become a vendor peddling books in the street. My satisfaction comes when I know that I have imparted knowledge. If money comes in the process then so be it.”
While ole Kulet is clearly one of Kenya’s most prolific creative writers whose books have all been selected by the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development as class readers, some critics have read a conspiracy to sideline him in terms of attention. Prof Evan Mwangi, for instance, writes that critics have “inimically suppressed texts from ethnic communities (like the minority Maasai) in what might be termed as cultural and intellectual marginalisation. Ole Kulet has been a victim of the ethnocentric literary establishment which does not want to study the creative language that has gone into his novels.” It is only recently that KICD has decided to approve one of his texts, “Blossoms of the Savannah” as a compulsory text for Literature students in high school which will be tested in the 2019 KCSE.
His reception abroad has however been favourable. His novels are being studied as set books in high schools and universities. For instance his debut novel, Is it Possible? is currently an A-level set book in Tanzania. His novels, Is it Possible? (1971) and To Become a Man (1972) have been translated into French, German and Swedish. On the notion of the writer as a prophet, he dismisses authors who write only to cash in on newsworthy events. “A writer can only be said to be prophetic when he writes with a foresight so that when what he predicted happens, people will say with the benefit of hindsight, ‘yes, he actually foretold this’.” In Bandits of Kibi (1999) he creates scenes that could have come out of the post-election violence after the disputed 2007 General Election