When discussing the writing of Ogot, it is difficult to separate her work from its historical and cultural contexts, particularly its precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial contexts. At the time of writing “The Green Leaves” in the early 1960s, Kenya had just achieved independence from British colonialism. The road to independence was tortuous and extremely violent. Beginning in the 1920s with the demand for labor and land reform, it carried through to the 1950s, when violence between nationalist groups and white settlers and police became more frequent. As J. Roger Kurtz notes in the historical context to Majorie Oludhe Macgoye’s novel Coming to Birth, during the State of Emergency that the British enforced in Kenya during the 1950s, nearly 15,000 native Kenyans died in the struggle for independence. Therefore, the significance of these struggles was not lost on the literary generation coming of age in newly formed African nations such as Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Sudan.
Like many other African writers of the 1950s and 1960s, Ogot confronts the tensions occurring between the gradually weakening colonial forces and the persistent indigenous groups who defy them. As part of a literary and cultural trend emerging in newly formed African nations over the last thirty years, Ogot’s writing can be seen as a good example of postcolonial literature. Most of this literature written after independence is a response to the colonizing experience from the point of view of the colonized (i.e. indigenous peoples). The colonized mainly speak of the trauma, humiliation, and slave mentality induced in their psyches as a result of having various religious, political, and legal institutions imposed on their own traditions. One of the best-known theorists who has analyzed the psychological conditions that colonized people undergo is Franz Fanon, whose book Black Skin, White Masks brought to the public’s awareness the denigrating consequences of being a colonized subject. As Gina Wisker notes in Post-Colonial and African American Women’s Writing, “Fanon’s work enables engagement with debates about how ex-colonial subjects develop and seize their own identities and slough off the destructiveness of the colonial experiences which represent them in a negative light.” Despite the formation of independent nations from many former colonies, the psychological effects of colonization continue to impede economic, social, and cultural development as well as the formation of national identities. For many postcolonial writers, nation- and culture-building through identification with the indigenous people’s conception of their pre-colonial past becomes a political means intended to restore dignity and cultural pride to Africans.
For many writers, looking to the precolonial era is a way of reclaiming an African history untouched by Europeans. In many of the short stories in Land without Thunder, Ogot uses her background as a Luo, the indigenous people who settled around Lake Victoria in western Kenya, to preserve a sense of the past for future generations. In an interview with Lee Nichols in his book Conversations with African Writers, Ogot says that by putting the stories she heard as a young girl to paper, she is preserving Luo heritage so that “when our children change beyond recognition they will know what they were in the past.” Her interest in using Luo folktales as the basis for some of her writing has led her to abandon writing in English, at times, to focus on writing in Luo. In this way, Luo people who do not read or write in English can enjoy and appreciate her writing that often mirrors their collective histories and experiences. In Wanesema: Conversations with African Writers, Ogot tells author Don Burness that “It is my hope that people have proper respect for their own language and will learn it so that it will not be lost and swallowed up by English and Kiswahili.” The movement towards writing in African vernacular languages has political undertones that are most explicitly expressed by another Kenyan writer, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, in Decolonizing the Mind: The Politics of Language in African Writing.
Lastly, Ogot also focuses on her belief that particular issues concerning the impact of colonialism and patriarchy on women have been disregarded or misrepresented in the works of many male writers, including Achebe and Ngugi. Many of the issues discussed in her novels focus on the means by which women’s voices were silenced in precolonial, colonial, and postcolonial eras in Kenyan history. Thus, by using folktales as the basis of her short stories, she can question “the powers of traditional myth and magic, which frequently oppress women,” as stated by Gina Wisker in Post-Colonial and African American Women’s Writing.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Grace Ogot, Published by Gale, 2002.