Discussing culture is like walking mindlessly into a minefield. It is a subject that attracts unwarranted emotive outbursts especially when it converges at its most sensitive apex: traditionalism vs modernism. The traditionalists believe Africa should not discard her customs and beliefs yet embrace a few aspects of globalization that bring modernity. On the opposite end are modernists who are sympathetic to western values to suit the demands of the 21st century.
Henry Ole Kulet’s Daughter of Maa is a hybrid of both worlds – traditionalism and modernism. Ole Kulet narrates the story of Seleina, a beautiful village girl, who is scheduled to marry Joseph Ole Malon according to Maa traditional customs. The marriage, like most African communities, is solemnised through an enkaputi. An enkaputi is a traditional agreement that brings together family members of both the bride and bridegroom; in this case Ole Mugie’s and Ole Malon’s family.
However, it is the arrival of one Anna Nalangu that changes everything and brings the small Maa village to an endless standstill. Those who have read Elechi Amadi’s classic The Concubine will readily identify with the character of Nalangu. Like Ihuoma in Amadi’s text; Nalangu has that bewitching beauty and tempting allure that drives both young and old men bonkers. In Maa village where there’s only a single shop that sells a few items and beer, and boredom ever constant, elders will do everything to attract the attention of this social worker and teacher.
Ann Nalangu is also seen as a threat by the Maa women because since her arrival, the elders no longer concentrate on their roles and responsibilities. Elders such as Ole Masi, Ole Ngasharr, and even Ole Mugie want to visit Ole Ngasharr’s off-license shop where they can ogle at Nalangu as she enters her small car after teaching the women folk.
The writer uses Nalangu as an embodiment of change especially when Nalangu recalls that most of her college mates did not want to come back to the village because to a majority of them ‘rural areas brought into their minds pictures of vast dry areas… [with]…illiterate men and women, who would do nothing the whole day except laugh, talk, shout and sometimes wail.’ Ole Kulet brings to the fore how education often brainwashes people into ridiculing the very places they came from.
In retrospect, the writer highlights the enduring attributes of Maa people that in spite of their illiteracy, they still had wisdom and intelligence. Through Nalangu, he calls for the respect and recognition of Maa cultural values.
A page-turner full of resplendent sentences that demonstrate a writer at peace with his craft, Ole Kulet weaves sentences with such ease that you wonder why a few Kenyan readers have been exposed to such a remarkable author. On page 74 he writes: ‘Even the grass was silver, and beyond through the trees she could see the shadows of sleeping cows whose horns were tipped with silver, glistering in the setting sun.’
And proverbs abound aplenty like on page 157 when Ole Mugie seeks Nalangu’s hand in marriage. His reason: ‘When an elephant grows old and tired, it looks for a ground with succulent bushes and water to retire to and spend the last part of its life.’
Meanwhile, the obsession over Nalangu continues with feverish abandon resulting to Joseph Ole Malon threatening to renege on the enkaputi – an abomination. A ferocious struggle ensues between forces of modernity and tradition as Malon is determined to marry Nalangu via the modern way. It is a struggle that entangles other characters smitten with the teacher and ready to defy the idea of being chosen a wife by elders. Richard Lanto, Malon’s shepu-ilkerra, what to Luos is Jawuoth or in English, Best man, is also deeply attracted to this elusive woman who eventually turns down all their offers.
Ole Kulet comes out as a fierce voice of women in the Daughter of Maa where, despite the subordinate roles of characters such as Nalotuesha (Seleina’s mother) and Nariku-Nkera; Seleina and Anna Nalangu triumph at the end. The declaration by Lanto that ‘This is a women’s world’ lends credence to the writer’s commitment to empowerment not only of the Maa women, but others marginalized around the world.
© Amol Awuor
The writer is an English and Literature student at Kenyatta University.