Okang'a Ooko's Biography
Okang'a Ooko was born in 1967 in Rusinga Island, in Lake Victoria, in South Nyanza, about 100 kilometres from Kisumu, in western Kenya. He is of the Luo-Suba stork since his father was a Suba and his mother was a Luo from Siaya. He is the third born of a family of nine children. In the mid-60s, his family moved to Kisumu. His father worked as a coxwain with the Fisheries Department in Kisumu and his mother was a vegetable seller at the municipal market. He grew up in the 70s and 80s in Kisumu. He grew up admiring books. His family lived near Kisumu Area Library and his early life was about books. He spent many hours in the library and in bookstores in Kisumu, and he would spend evenings and weekends flipping through book after book, always sure to read the ones that looked the most interesting. He was given the nickname "Master Storyteller" by his friends in 1980 because he loved to retell the stories he had read. This was the era when television and movies were still a novelty and beyond the reach of his poor family. The most convenient form of entertainment was reading novels.
His earliest recollections of life are of severe hardships under the harsh Kisumu sun. It was a life of unrelenting struggles to fit in, pursuit of perfection and order, perplexities, sadness and incredible self-awareness, and all the other emotions an artist can have. Since he was artistic in nature, he tended to be sensitive and withdrawn, and he suffered a lot. From an early age, he was asthmatic and a social misfit. He found an escape in reading and dreaming. He was a huge gobbler of fiction all the way up to high school. The library was his safe place and his friends were all avid readers as well. He studied fine art at the Notre Dame Catholic Art Centre in Kisumu under renowned American watercolorist, Janet Mullen, and then proceeded to Kenya Polytechnic in Nairobi to study graphic design and communication. Although he had always made up stories in his head, he did not write as a young boy other than essays for the school magazine. In high school, in Kisumu, it was a longheld belief that he will be a writer some day. His friends and colleagues always chided him about it, asking when "his book" was going to be published. His family, too, waited. He started seriously writing in college in Nairobi, but even that wasn't serious writing. In the early 90s, he was involved heavily in theatrical activities and worked mainly as set and costume designer in productions at Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi. He wrote two plays that were produced by Falaki Arts. He also wrote a poem here, a short story there... things he wasn't serious about and which did not find their way into print. By then he was a highly regarded artist and designer. In 1993, he graduated with a distinction in graphic art and signed a five-year contract with the Undugu Society of Kenya, Nairobi, in a revered position of product designer. In this position, he mainly worked with jua kali (informal sector) producers training them to how to innovate and come up with better products. He helped introduce new products and improved the look and function of their existing products. The word for this work was Product Development. For Ooko, it was Designing For The Real World, something he enjoyed since he was a guy from the wrong side of the tracks who loved soiling his hands and dealing with men and women of low. It connected him with the wretched of the Earth and as a troublesome man who was forever haunted by perplexities and a troubled soul forever pursued by heart-wrenching hardships and mercillesly demonised by men, he was in a familiar place in informal settings where there was perfect escape and peace. Afterall, he was a child born to suffer. This work also gave him challenging experiences and connected him with scenes and characters that later found their way into the pages of his books. He found himself with more free time and started reading again. He wrote a lot during this time too, published some obscure works. Kichorochoro was inspired by a blood-curdling story of a broken street boy he pulled out of Majengo and brought into the Community Development programme of Undugu for fixing. It was first published in Flash, the quartely newsletter of the Undugu Society.
Today he is an author of six works of fiction and some of the interesting books he picks off the shelves are written by himself! For a man always faced with formidable obstacles, and who is always the architect of his destiny, a child born to suffer, the hard life he has lived has not worn him out. Like the artist he is, he ever has faith in himself and he is endowed with undying faith that his works are doing good to the human society that he controls in his sphere of influence as a writer, a designer and an artist. In a real sense, he is an artist writing fiction for full accomplishment of art (his artistic calling), not an extension of an unfulfilled dream but a pursuit of accomplishment and excellence. And since art is above ordinary mortality, he believes that life is too short for him to master even the art of writing fiction. "And life is too short for me to tell you everything I know," he writes in his Curriculum vitae. "That's why I put my thoughts in books." To put it correctly, he is a writer on a trajectory trying to find his path. His stories are snapshot of his experiences. Having written five novels, he is trying to understand the impact his art is having in the world.
And he is still is a lover of books and a gobbler of fiction, a man who takes reading holidays. And he doesn’t just love to read books. He loves to talk about them. In his own words, "The feeling of escaping into a completely different world and losing yourself for hours in the pages of books is an odyssey in the dreamland, gives me peace and energy. I love books. I love turning pages. I love the sound of rustling pages and smell of printed paper. I love the magic in printed words. I love immersing myself in stories, losing myself in twists and turns of plots. My world is the Book World. I buy tons of second hand books on the streets of Nairobi. I squeeze reading in whenever I can — primarily during travelling, meals and even writing. I read on my Samsung smartphone and my iPad, in my car and on the matatu and in the hospital and airport waiting rooms. I frequent bookstores and leave with books in my arms. I download tons of books, I spend many hours reading. It is scientifically proven that reading fiction expands your mind beyond imagination. I am a man of meagre formal education. I am a man of the arts... now a man of letters. I thrive in the realm of creativity, not formality which imprisons the mind. I am a man of the streets, of the world. Yeah, I still read James Hadley Chase, I have the entire collection. I an ardent fan of Hemingway (all writers are). I read Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammet. I read Poe, Becket, Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Wilkie Collins. In the 80s, I was greattly inspired by literary and mainstream writers like Meja Mwangi, Sam Kahiga, Mwangi Ruheni, Mailu, Wilbur Smith, Ekwensi and Alex La Guma. I read Beckett and VS Naipul and Selvon and the best of Black American literature too. Today I read Iain Banks, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Hellen Oyeyemi, Harlan Coben, Elizabeth Strout, Kazio Ishiguro, Cormac McCarthy, Dana Spiotta, James Mcbride, Eric Jerome Dickey, Walter Mosleyand Danticat Edwidge. I exhibit talent in many ways and (very imprtantly) I am the smart worldly man I am today because of the tons of fiction I have stuffed inside my brain."
This is what he writes about how Kisumu has inspired his works. "I am a lonesome storyteller who constantly needs to be in Kisumu for inspiration. Like a character in one of my stories, I need to be in Kisumu as a torque on my imagination to complete my life's journey so that I can die and rest. I am an artist, naturally. That's why I respond to things the way I do and sometimes react to things in ways few people can understand. Nobody can understand the burden on my shoulder except they should be fellow artists with my inclination to responsibility... the pressure to do what I have to do to represent humanity. It's a duty of an artist and it can kill because an artist is an obligated being. I retired from being a graphic designer to be an artist and put my life in routine, I am currently living my dream as a writer. I also write for online publications, periodicals, feature articles and the like. I live in Nairobi and spend weekends in Kisumu and Homa Bay. Kisumu. With the blue and green and magenta and orange marmalade and yellow ochre and burnt sienna colours all around me, with the warming sun sweetly kissing my skin, with benga music soothing me in upbeat, I feel no pain but happiness when I am at home in Kisumu pacho. And with the sidewalk crowded with people who have found someone at least for a time, a world of no shutters or screens and the calling out of first names met with cheer and jeer in the still air, I am greeted with the waves of hands and shouts of hellos. I am happy."
Be inspired, be informed, be entertained, be challenged, be wowed. Be taught. Read fiction. Step into the world of Okang'a Ooko.
Lake Victoria Writers' Group, Kisumu, Kenya
February 2012 – December 2014
English, writing, and graphicl arts instructor • Creative Writing Consultation and Workshopping • Coached new writers • Consulted with authors and publishers on the development of book-length manuscripts • Published short, creative prose and poetry in numerous magazines and online venues.
January 2012 – September 2015, Nairobi, Kenya
Tutors high school students and foreigners from Francophone countries three times a week.
Graphic designer in various employment capacities
|Currently||Working on Kalamindi, novel|
|April 2021||Remember The Children Of Kisumo, novel|
|April 2020||Hunter and Gatherer, novel|
|December 2019||When You Sing To the Fishes, novel|
|July 2018||Bengaman, novel|
|October 2017||Businesswoman's Fault, stories|
|January 2016||Happy 9th Birthday, horror novella|
|June 2013||Kiss Ya Bangongi, short story|
|July 2011||Rude Awakening, short story|
|July 2009||First and Second Rhythm Guitars in an Old Benga Song, short novella|
|October 2006||Why No One Knows Where Death Lives Papyrus Artists Organisation, kids short story, audio podcast|
|2005||Infinity Eulogy for my friend Martin "Sande" Owino, Hawi Magazine Volume I, Lake Victoria Writers' Group, poem|
|August 2004||Moni Afinda Published in Eve Magazine, short story|
|June 2004||Innocents Longings, Dangerous Fulfilement First published in www.voicenet.org, poem|
|May 2002||The Proposal Published in Black Voices Online, short story|
|2001||Adventurer Published in Lady magazine, short story|
|1998||Pollution Control of Small –Scale Metal Industries In Nairobi, Final Report of Small –scale Metal Industries Environmental Pollution In Kenya , research study for International Labour Organisation (ILO)|
|May 1997||Scrap Metal Recycling, A product development study of Kamukunji Jua Kali Sector Published by the Undugu Society of Kenya, research paper, working document|
|November 1996||Kichorochoro Published in Flash, newsletter of the Undugu Society, issue no 98, short story|
|May 1995||Running Wild Published in Flash, newsletter of the Undugu Society, issue no 55, short story|
|September 1993||Now The Sun Doesn’t Shine Kenya Polytechnic Drama Club, an AIDS allegory with ritual drama, play in three acts|