The Promised Land: Remembering Grace Ogot

Acclaimed Kenyan author Grace Ogot, who was one of the first indigenous writers to come out of Africa, has died. She was 80 years old.

Ogot, who would have turned 81 in May, died at the Nairobi hospital on March 18 after suffering a long period of illness. She leaves behind her husband, acclaimed historian Bethwell Allan Ogot and their four children.

Ogot is widely considered the mother of Kenyan literature and published nine novels and numerous short stories during her lifetime. Some of her most renowned work includes 1966 novel “The Promised Land” and the collection of short stories “Land Without Thunder,” published in 1968.

“Ogot was among the first writers who demonstrated to the world that good literature…could emerge from Kenya,” said Professor Egara Kabaji at Masinde Muliro University in Kakamega, according to Daily Nation.

Ogot first became motivated to publish her writing upon discovering that she was the only East African at a 1962 conference on African literature at Makere University in Uganda. She decided that she wanted to tell the story of her heritage and a year later she published her first short story, “A Year of Sacrifice,” in the Black Orpheus journal.

Much of Ogot’s writing focuses on the Luo community – an indigenous Christian community in Kenya and Tanzania of which she was a part. Emphasizing Luo folklore, Ogot juxtaposed traditional and modern values, demonstrating both the conflicts and the convergences that exist within the community.

In “The Promised Land,” the main character, Ochola, contracts an illness that conventional medicine appears unable cure. In desperation, Ochola turns to a Luoan medicine man and – without revealing too much – finds solace.

“In day-to-day life in some communities in Kenya, both the modern and the traditional cures coexist,” Ogot told Swedish journalist Bernth Lindfors in 1979.

Gender roles is another reoccurring theme in Ogot’s writing, especially within the context of Christian traditions. Ogot often emphasized traditional martial roles, portraying women as protectors of children and men as dominant patriarchs. Some feminist theorists claim this to make Ogot’s writing overwhelmingly patriarchal while others find it strengthening and encouraging.

In recent years, Ogot was active in educational development in Kenya and East Africa. Among other initiatives, Ogot donated six acres of her family’s land in the Siaya province to the Odera Akang’o University. The university’s Principal Joseph Rasowo recently told a reporter from Daily Nation that Ogot’s contributions are invaluable to the natives of the region.

“She ensured that Siaya had a university,” he said. “This land is worth 50 million [Kenyan Shillings] and we will forever be grateful.”

Originally from Sweden, Chris is a journalist with an extensive interest for African culture and the arts.