Asenath Bole Odaga, OGW
Writer, Publisher, Storyteller, Researcher, Consultant.
July 5, 1938 - December 1, 2014
"My wish is to see an enlightened citizenry supporting good governance, able to make informed choices, living in harmony with one another, having access to useful information, including good books, and with everybody enjoying improved quality of life."
Asenath Bole Odaga, a renowned Kenyan writer and the first woman in East Africa to establish and run a publishing house, was born in Nyanza Province on July 5, 1938. She was the third child of Blastus Aum and Patricia Abuya Akumu. Her parents became Christians in their youth and were educated at a school established on the Nyabondo Plateau close to their village, in 1906, by the African Inland Mission, established by some of the first missionaries to arrive in Kenya. Her father became a teacher and a catechist; he founded the first Anglican Church in Nyabondo – the Guu Anglican Church in Kenya, now in Kisumu County. Bole's mother attended a boarding school for girls at the same mission and also became a Christian. The couple valued education and sent all their nine children; two boys and seven girls - to school regardless of their gender.
Bole was educated at Kabete Primary School, then at Guu School, situated on the compound of the Church founded by her father and Nyakach Sector School before proceeding to Ng’iya Girls Boarding School. She was an intelligent and curious student who loved to read and tell stories. At Ng'iya, Bole obtained excellent grades and was admitted into the prestigious Alliance Girls High School, Kikuyu, then known as African Girls High School; after which she trained as a teacher.
Bole taught at Ng'iya Teachers Training College, Kambare, Ambira and Butere Girls Schools. While she was teaching at Butere Girls School, she was approached to start a girls boarding school at Nyakach, the mission station where her parents had been educated. The initial girls’ school on the compound had collapsed. It was reopened by an American woman missionary, but unfortunately it failed a second time.
Asked about the opportunity, in an interview years later, Bole said, "It was a challenge I could not walk away from. I had been a teacher for only three years. I had a young family and my husband had just left for further studies abroad. Now I had to re-establish an old school where my mother before me had gone to as a boarder." She accepted the offer and her hard work and dedication paid off. Today, Nyakach Girls High School stands as one of the biggest girls’ schools in Western Kenya. It was during her time at Nyakach that Bole began to write seriously.
After three years at Nyakach Girls High School, Bole took a leave of absence to join her husband who was then a post-graduate student at the Hague, Netherlands. While there she took the opportunity to obtain a diploma in Office Management. When the Odagas returned to Kenya, they settled in Nairobi where she first worked as a secretary at the Kenya Dairy Board and was then an Assistant Classified Advertising Officer at the East Africa Standard.
In 1971, she became a student at the University of Nairobi, where she majored in literature and education. She graduated with a B. A. (Hons.) in Literature and a diploma in Education. After graduation she worked briefly as Assistant Director, Curriculum Development Program at the National Christian Council of Kenya, before returning to the University of Nairobi for post graduate studies. She was a Research and Tutorial Fellow at the Institute of Africa Studies. Her research was on the oral literature of several Kenyan ethnic groups. Her Masters’ thesis was on Educational Values of Oral Narratives of the Luo of Kenya.
After six years at the University of Nairobi, Bole decided to dedicate her time to writing. A year later she moved to Kisumu, the third largest city in Kenya and founded Lake Publishers and Enterprises Ltd, becoming the first woman publisher in East Africa. She also established Thu Tinda Bookshop. Her goal was to create a platform for young writers and local language writers to take their works and have candid discussions about writing.
By then, Bole had published several books for children and adolescents, two novels and a book on baby care, Your Child from Birth to Three Years, for young mothers written in her mother tongue Dholuo. She had also presented numerous papers at local and international conferences, workshops and seminars. She covered a wide range of issues she was passionate about; including, Book Distribution in Kenya, Writing and Publishing in Mother tongues, Women and Development, African and oral literature, Christianity and African Traditions, and Cultural Practices which are harmful to women.
Bole worked hard to promote reading and literature in Kenya. She believed in writing in local languages to reach the grassroots, where reading is limited to mother tongues. She traveled widely, talking and encouraging Kenyans to read and write. She was active in literary circles in Kenya and beyond, regularly participating in International book fairs in Zimbabwe, London and Frankfurt. She was chairperson of the Children’s Literature Association of Kenya and Kenya Women Writers Foundation; a founding member of Kenya Oral Literature Association; a member of PEN International Kenya Chapter; African Women Literature Programme; and the Women’s World International Organization for Rights, Literature and Development. She was a board member of the International Board of Books for Young People. She also served on the governing board of Women Writing Africa, a project of the Feminist Press at the City University of New York, a project of cultural reconstruction which has brought the voices of African women to readers around the world.
Bole co-founded the Kenya Women Literature Group whose main aim was to encourage women to read and write for each other in whatever language they are most comfortable in. She felt that literacy is important for development and women's empowerment. With funding from the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, the group produced 12 stories written by women in twelve indigenous Kenyan languages to be used in promoting adult literacy and to contribute literature in indigenous languages.
The Kenya Women Literature Group evolved into a national NGO: Kar Oganda gi Dongruok - Gender and Development Centre, with Bole as the chairperson. The capacity building organization worked to empower women through training. Its programming evolved around promoting the Platform for Action and Beijing Declaration by providing women four literacies: body literacy - encompassing reproductive health, general wellbeing and hygiene; civic literacy - providing civic education, legal and human rights awareness. Money literacy - focusing on entrepreneurship, income generating activities and food security, and lastly, word literacy – reading, writing, information, ICT, informal and informal education. Its focus included the girl child and elderly women.
Bole was also a popular on-air personality on Radio Victoria, Kisumu where she often spoke on socio- cultural, girl child, economic, gender, parenting and education issues. She was also a frequent guest on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation radio and featured on various television programs.
An avid theatre enthusiast, Bole supported the Abila Creative Arts and Nam Teta Sigoti Players, two very active youth theatre groups in Kisumu who used theatre to sensitize communities on HIV/AIDS, the girl child, domestic violence, development and other social issues. The groups have performed all over Kenya. The groups also performed some of her plays, including: Something for Nothing - a play on corruption (in English) and Simbi Nyaima - the Village that Sank and Ofweny Jarawo - The Uninvited Guest, which is about HIV/AIDS, in Dholuo.
Bole served on several boards and committees, including: Kisumu Museum, Kisumu Boys High School, Nyanza Provincial Education Board, Lake Victoria Trust, Inter-Diocesan Christian Community Services, Kanyakwar Cultural Centre Kisumu, Kenya Association of University Women Kisumu, Business & Professional Women’s Club, Kisumu and Kisumu Innovative Centre Kenya. She was an observer at the 2000 Kenya Constitutional Review Commission, a commissioner with the Media Commission of Kenya, a member of Media Ethics Committee and a trustee of Institute of Economic Affairs. In 2006, for her services to country and humanity, the Government of Kenya awarded her the Order of the Golden Warrior, OGW, which she cherished greatly.
By the time she passed away from pancreatic cancer on December 1, 2014, Bole had written and published over 50 books in Luo and English. Her books are widely read and some have been on curriculums at various educational levels- Endless Road, one of her novels, was a set book in Zambia for O’ Levels and another, Jande’s Ambition, has been used in teaching Children’s Literature at Kenyatta University, Kenya for many years. Bole regularly stated that her Dholuo-English and English-Dholuo Dictionaries, which took her more than 20 years to produce, and her book on Luo Proverbs and Sayings were her favorite books.
Bole was married to James Charles Odaga for over 59 years. They met when she was in secondary school and loved each other from first sight. Seven years later, they got married in church, solemnizing what would be a long, loving relationship built on trust and partnership in all they did. A doting mother and a grandmother, she believed that, “we can make the world a better place if we all could work above board in all that we do.”
She believed that, “we can make the world a better place if we all could work above board in all that we do.”