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Speech by Oduor Jagero.
Maseno University, School of Arts and Social Sciences
15 Oct. 2014
Good morning everyone!
I want to thank Dr. Omwalo for his kind words about my book and inviting me here to talk with the students, and by extension,to all the people gathered here today.
May be I should start by congratulating all the students for being here, doing what you’re doing, for achieving what I could not achieve. I failed to attain the required points to join the university. My marks were two points below the required. But a fail is a fail. There is no good fail. I had no luxury of going to the university through a parallel program.
My story is humble as it is special. I was born in the village and went to a village primary and high school. Many of you are familiar with Olembo Boys. That was my school.
I was born just a few kilometres from here, as matter of fact some 25kms from Kisumu City. My home lies along the sleepy shores of River Nyando. A place that was once so fertile and full of trees and teeming with groundnuts, fish, and fruits. There all sorts of sorts of birds and wild animals.
As a child, innocent and lacking the aggressiveness of a typical Nairobi dweller, I looked after my grandfather’s cattle and sheep. I remember myself atop the guava trees, careening on weak twigs like a monkey trying to reach for the ripest of the fruits. I can still see the smoke spiralling skywards after we had stolen maize and would be roasting it behind the baobab tree.
And when the rains would finally came; fierce rains and frightening lightening and thunder, River Nyando would break her banks, spitting water in the direction of my home. Fish, all sorts of fish such as Opato, Mumi, Kamongo, sire nyapende, and dhira would be left drunk and floating. My mother had a rare specialty in frying the fish.
That was also the planting season. My mother would mobilise us to the farm, everybody with a hoe and maize seeds. As the maize and sorghum began to blossom, long grass shot up too, forming a breathtaking meadow. I remember the long grass between the farms called sino. You called yourself an expert if you were able to graze cattle along the sino without them getting into the maize field.
I remember the birds too. Osogo, mire, and many others gathered, laughing in jubilation as they built their nests using their beaks, sewing long grass blades so expertly. Soon we will be harvesting; harvesting meant boiled maize,groundnuts,and beans tucked in our bags at school. The food glut also meant farting in class. Sometimes we took time to involve ourselves in a farting competition.
Teachers always kept off from class or coming too close to the desks during this season.
It was a beautiful life walking barefoot and wearing just one short until it was worn out after months of sliding in the mud and on the tree trunks. I am not special because I was the first member of my family to have been born in the wild, away from midwives and the comfort of nurses. My family members believe that its precisely at this point that I picked my fighting spirit, that I fought too much to come out. May be they’re wrong, may be they’re right.
In my childhood, the devil, as my mother believes, tried killing me five times. A toilet latrine once collapsed and entirely sunk when I was on the driving seat. But God, as my mother and I believe, rescued me. A cow once gored me from behind, tossed me in the air and instead of falling on her horns, I landed on her hump. And then one day I decided to swing on the cupboard door, which was full of plates. At some point the whole 6 foot started falling. I tried to restrain it but at some point it overpowered me, crushing on me and burying me in a heap of plates, cups, spoons, and glasses. The other two incidences are too depressing to talk about.
In my childhood, I loved telling stories. But I also reconstructed some parts in order to make it sound how I believed it should have happened. In the process, I often introduced the art of creativity in my stories, making them a little juicy while maintaining it’s convincing nature. In hind sight, I was doing what is called creativity. Of course I was abusing creativity. Later on, I experienced my Eureka moment. I learned that instead of rejigging, twisting facts, I could make my own stories;lay my own foundation, build on it and give it a varnish of my own choosing, a roofing of my own, and create a fence either using a hedge or brick and mortar.
Creative writing, therefore, as a fine art of making things up in an apt, convincing, even in a conniving way, is partly inborn in my case. For a long time I hated the fact that I was not born with a silver spoon in my mouth. But I have experienced an enlightenment. Now I am very glad that I was instead born with a golden pen. For economic depression may break your silver spoon at some point but the golden pen is something so superior, so powerful, so conquering.
The pen gives a sense of peace. For others, it has given a sense of class, and yet for others it has accorded wealth. People like Ken Walibora, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Chinua Achebe, and Wallah Bin Wallah are African writers that have reaped from the bleeding of the pen. People like James Patterson, Dan Brown, John Grisham,and others are some international names that have built castles from the pen mines. There are writers who have died paupers too. It works for others but for others it does not. But isn’t that in any profession? We know businessmen who have died paupers while some have perished less than a quarter way through their pursuit after the shilling.
But the pen is also a tool for many things. The pen has recently found itself a worthy tool for activism, what many now call writivism. Today, writing has to take a bigger role in a deteriorating African continent. Wole Soyinka is an example of a pen warrior who has over the years relentlessly fought ills in the governments of Babangida, Abacha. Obasanjo, and now that of the current president. Ngugi Wa Thiongo earned himself a long exile for the same.
Now writing is not a worthy career, or is it? Writing is confusing just like music or acting or modelling. For us in city, you need something proper to say when you come back to the village. What company do you work with in the city, my son? That question demands a proper answer, that which elicits a swift nod – something that makes your old man say ‘that’s my son right there?!’. You should be working for the Ministry of Agriculture. It does not matter in what capacity. Or a lecturer at the University of Maseno. It’s noble. It’s tight. It’s honourable. In other words, the society demands the sort of job that can afford you the luxury of a three piece suit and matching neck tie, crocodile shoes, a cowboy hat, a golden watch, and a walking handle.
But writing is like football, is it not? A mere kicking of the ball, a mere play. Or are those that look at writing this way deluded? Of course they are. They’re ignorant.
A friend of mine was in Malindi last week teaching creative writing for four days and the organisation was paying him twenty-five thousand shillings per day. Writing documentary script takes less than a month and serious script-writers charge about two hundred thousand for the same. Those that operate as ghost writers for autobiographies earn a tidy sum.
So should you write? That’s a good question. The same question such ‘should I be an accountant or an engineer?’. Of course it’s relatively easier to be an account in the sense that somebody already started the company. All you’ve to do is balance the books.
So write if you wish. Thank you.