Wednesday, January 8, 2020
Inside stories by the wazee: Barbara Kimenye (Nation 15)
By JONATHAN HUNT
Barbara Kimenye, who has died aged 82, was one of East Africa's most popular and bestselling children's authors. Her books sold more than a million copies, not just in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but throughout English-speaking Africa. Many of her more than 50 titles are still available. She was also The Nation’s first Women’s Editor.
Best remembered is her Moses series, about a mischievous student at a boarding school for troublesome boys. Though not always well-behaved, Moses was never malicious, possessing all the good, bad, questioning and imaginative qualities of a teenager.
His classmates at Mukibi's Educational Institute for the Sons of African Gentlemen included his closest friend, the big-for-his-age King Kong, a dedicated fan of the singer Miriam Makeba, to whom "he believed he was virtually engaged" since a secretary sent him a signed photo. Rukia, with his love of law and order, could never keep out of anyone else's business, while Matagubya had a source of banana beer.
Perhaps the most colourful of the characters in Dorm Three was Itchy Fingers, "always very good about giving back people's belongings – even if, as occasionally happened, he absentmindedly picked them up again later in the day". To the whole crew, Barbara brought her highly readable, but never patronising, style, and storylines that gripped but never disconcerted her readers.
Barbara Clarke Holdsworth was born in Halifax, West Yorkshire, the daughter of a Jewish-born Catholic convert mother and a West Indian doctor father. She attended Keighley girls' grammar school before moving to London to train as a nurse. There she met many students from East Africa, and married Bill Kimenye, son of a chief from Bukoba in what was then Tanganyika. They moved to his hometown on Lake Victoria in the mid-1950s.
After the marriage broke up, she moved with a toddler and another baby on the way across the lake to Uganda, where she had friends. In Kampala, the capital, she was reacquainted with many friends who had been some of the first Ugandan students in Britain. By now they were becoming the first leaders and professionals of what would soon be independent Uganda.
The then kubaka (king) of Buganda, Edward Muteesa II, invited her to work as a private secretary in his government. She lived near to the palace compound, and her two sons, Christopher (Topha) and David (Daudi) became close to his family and other members of the royal household.
Barbara always had a gift with words (she wrote her own newspaper as a child of 11) and became a journalist on the Uganda Nation newspaper, possibly the first black woman in East Africa to perform such a role. She also developed a talent for storytelling, writing down the tales she told to children.
Moving to Nairobi, Kenya, in 1965 to work on the Daily Nation, and later the East African Standard, Barbara was wooed by publishers who, post-independence, sought talented authors who wrote for and about African children. However, her first book, Kalasanda, for OUP, was a tale of Ugandan village life, followed by Kalasanda Revisited. It was after this that she turned her hand to stories for children and schools.
Barbara lived in Nairobi until 1975 when, with both sons in England, she moved to London. There she worked for Brent council as a race relations adviser, while continuing to write. She assiduously followed political developments in a disrupted Uganda and played an active role supporting exile groups opposed to the rule of Idi Amin, and later the second Milton Obote regime.
In 1986, with the overthrow of Obote, she returned to Uganda to help rebuild the country. She was to spend a further three years in Kampala before deciding to relocate to Kenya where she spent the next 10 years in semi-retirement – though still writing at least one book a year.
In 1998 Barbara finally settled back in London where she lived happily and was much involved in community affairs in Camden.
Shortly before her death she received the news that the Moses series was about to be relaunched by OUP and also to be translated into Kiswahili.
Christopher died in 2005. She is survived by David, and a granddaughter, Celeste.
• Barbara Clarke Kimenye, journalist, author, born 19 December 1929; died 12 August 2012
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