Kenya: A Bibliography
Help me crowdsource a reading list.
I’ve been reading a lot of interesting books about Kenya recently, books that have fundamentally shifted my perspective on a lot of important things in a lot of important ways. It’s been my experience that knowledge about Kenya is always partial or incomplete. First you have received wisdom, most of which has roots in colonial discourse about the country and is tinged with a no small amount of loathing or self loathing. The Dark Continent genre of writing about African countries that sees challenges faced here as insurmountable. Second, you have indigenous, local knowledge that is contaminated by the propaganda goals of the state. This is the knowledge produced by people who never grappled with the reality that almost everything we learnt in 844 is a lie.
But then you have this third slice of knowledge — a blend of indigenous knowledge that is is closer to the reality of who Kenya was, is and could be. Knowledge that recognises and uses it’s own partiality to do a thorough job on a specific subject or a subset of a subject and then says “okay, I’ve done my part now do yours”. This kind of knowledge is telling a new story of Kenya. It’s going after the historical misrepresentations and coming up with new frameworks that allow us to deal with the reality of who we are, and then chart a way forward for this reality rather than a constructed, nativist idea of a Kenya.
These are the books or articles that I’m after in this reading list. I don’t believe that there can be one epic account of Kenyan history that adequately captures everything. I think we need lots of little bricks to put together something good and meaningful. I’m after people who have approached their subjects with a certain amount of creativity or ingeniousness. People who see beyond the Africa tropes and think about Kenya as what it is — a complex place with a complex history and a difficult road ahead of it if it is to survive as a political idea.
So without further ado, Kenya — a bibliography (As far as possible, I’ve provided links to kindle books. No links means come to Kenya and buy one for yourself!).
- Dust, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor — yes, it’s a work of fiction, but probably more historical research has gone into crafting this sometimes gentle, sometimes brutal account of what has gone into the making and unmaking of Kenya.
- Kenya @ 50, Joyce Nyairo — this is an uneven book. I’m the first to admit this. Part of the problem is that it is a collection of newspaper articles formatted for the book, part of it is that it doesn’t seem to see itself as as the intellectual book it could be. But it is a brave and comprehensive text, and an interesting starting point for a new conversation about identity and belonging in Kenya.
- A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, Grace Musila. This book is about one thing — the yet unresolved case of a British tourist in a Kenyan national park in the early 1990s — but then also about many things — about how truth and fact intersect in the Kenyan public, how politics conspires and takes advantages of the cleavages it finds there, and how two countries bound by colonisation collided around this specific incident. I can’t recommend it enough.
- Britain’s Gulag, Caroline Elkins — probably the most comprehensive account of the emergency period between 1952 and 1959, Elkins will teach you one of the fundamental reasons why “never again” has always been a hollow promise; that less than a decade after liberating Germany, Britain was leading a holocaust campaign in one of it’s settler colonies.
- Pio Gama Pinto: Patriot for Social Justice, Pheroze Nowrojee — this slim volume is an excellent introduction to a key figure who the Kenyan government has worked very hard to erase from the public consciousness but whose intellectual ghost towers over the country. Pio’s was one of the first of many assassinations in independent Kenya and the facts of his death were symptomatic not just of the toxic politics in Kenya, but of the poisonous Cold War proxy struggles.
- Crisis? What Crisis? Gado — Gado is one of Kenya’s foremost humourists has published a retrospective on his editorial cartoons between 2005 and 2012 that do more to tell a story of contemporary Kenyan politics than volumes and volumes on the nation’s political evolution (and devolution) during this period. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then Gado has written an epic with this collection.
- Stories of Our Lives, The Nest Collective — a fantastic collection of reflections from Kenya’s LGBQTI community, thinking through identity and belonging in a country where people have been murdered for having the wrong tribe at the wrong time in the wrong place. The debates around identity, belonging and statehood are an excellent starting point for contemplating new frameworks on who decides who is Kenyan.
- Blood on the Runway, The Wagalla Massacre, Salah Abdi Sheikh — it’s interesting that so few Kenyans know about the horrors that have been conducted in their name by their own governments, and thus how many are keen to repeat the mistakes of the past in the name of building a new nation. This book captures the 1984 massacre against the Degodia clan of Kenya’s Somali population in Wagalla Wajir under the guise of a security operation — not the first of it’s kind and certainly not the last. The book is currently out of print, but I’m hoping this public naming campaign will prompt the writer to edit the volume and get it back on the market soon.
- The True Story of David Munyakei: Goldenberg Whistlelower, Billy Kahora — this is a slim volume that tells one of the most important stories in contemporary Kenyan history. Before John Githongo, there was David Munyakei, a lowly accountant who blew the whistle on one of the most elaborate cons and corruption scandals in Kenya’s history. Kahora provides a riveting account of the short tragic life of the man who gave up his life and changed the Kenya’s contemporary narrative forever.
- It’s Our Turn To Eat, Michaela Wrong — This is the story of anti-corruption activist John Githongo, who was one of the first to call out the corruption of the Kibaki administration that had come into power riding on a wave of optimism and hope that Kenya was finally going ot turn for the better. I haven’t read it yet but Githongo demonstrated courage at a time when his peer civil society activists were promptly absorbed and then coopted by power so I’m inclined to give it a thumbs up. Recommended by @ahenafula
- The Africans: A Triple Heritage, Ali Mazrui — early Mazrui is phenomenal for history. The Africans is a big read but it will give you some historical grounding. My only problem with Mazrui is that he has a tendency to essentialise characteristics and make broad sweeping statements that undermine the poignancy of his observations. Still a good starting point.
- Kenya: A History Since Independence, Charles Hornsby — recommended by @jane_marine “Fills important gaps from the early 60’s and 70's”
- Mau Mau and Nationhood: Arms, Authority and Narration, E. S. Atieno Odhiambo, recommended by Naomi van Stapele
- Mau Mau’s Daughter, Wambui Waiyaki Otieno — Recommended by Grace Musila
- Meja Mwangi’s Opus, Meja Mwangi — Meja Mwangi is one of Kenya’s premiere crime writers, known for his gritty depictions of life in downtown Nairobi. For non-Kenyans/non-Kenyans this is a great starting point for understanding the generation that went before us. Recommended by @G_A_Musila
- JM Kariuki Speaks His Mind, JM Kariuki — This was recommended by Kenyan Chief Justice Willy Mutunga, and because it’s out of print, the PDF is actually available for download at this link. JM Kariuki was another one of Kenya’s early political assassinations for his outspoken criticism of the excesses of the first Kenyatta administration. The interesting thing about this book was that JM was not allowed to campaign for electoral office so he wrote a series of speeches that were issued as a book and still managed to win the election.
- The Kenyatta Succession, Joseph Kirimi and Phillip Ochieng — Recommended by Grace Musila.
- The Black Bar: Corruption and Political Intrigue within Kenya’s Legal Fraternity, Paul Mwangi — Recommended by Grace Musila. In Kenya, like many other countries, the political space is dominated by lawyers, and so understanding how political intrigue affects the legal fraternity can be an indicator of a lot of other forces. Seems intriguing.
- Rogue Ambassador, Smith Hempstone — recommended by @mzungundege) Haven’t read it but it’s the account of former US ambassador to Kenya Smith Hempstone who was an extraordinarily vocal critic of the Moi government.
- Nairobi’s Matatu Men: Portrait of a Sub-Culture, Mbugua wa Mungai - recommended by @mutahiwahome “Mbugua Wa Mungai tells the story of a subculture that has been iconic to Nairobi’s everyday life since the 1950s: Nairobi’s privately-owned mini buses which provide public transport. He takes this culture as an entry point into a discussion of broader issues about Nairobi and Kenyan society. This book, his main academic work and a seminal contribution of Cultural Studies from Africa, opens new trajectories for the understanding of popular culture and urban life.”
B. Journal Articles
- “Phallocracies and Gynocratic transgressions: Gender, State power and Kenyan Public Life”, Grace A. Muslia — this is the article that inspired me to make this list. I’d written my own piece about Kenya’s phallocentric public policy and a friend sent me the piece to show that other women have noticed and have been thinking about this and I thought, more people should know this. It’s short but important.
- “Cultural Translation and the African Self: A Postcolonial Case Study” Simon Gikandi — (from the abstract) Using one unique colonial subject (Jomo Kenyatta) as its case study, the essay tries to understand what happens when we read Africa — and the African — through acts of cultural translation and negotiation, through a lexicon that emerged not simply as the opposition between colonial modernity and African traditionalism, but one produced at that liminal scene where the self becomes the other and the lines between the two are blurred or folded
C. Magazine Articles
- “Buru Buru” Billy Kahora — Billy Kahora is one of my favourite writers. He has an eye for detail and description that I find extremely rare and insightful, especially amongst a younger generation of writers who prefer motion to stillness and observation. In this piece, Billy reflects on the devolution of his childhood neighbourhood, Buru Buru, which was one of the last middle class neighbourhoods in Nairobi and thus bore a lot of the physical scars of the economic destructions of the 1990’s.
- The Redykyulass Generation, Parselelo Kantai — recommended by Grace Musila. Can’t find this online but I will keep looking. In the meantime, here is Musila’s article that makes reference to the piece.
- Nairobi, Inventing a City, Binyavanga Wainaina — Binyavanga writes something that we Nairobians know without having to say it: we are not the same people in English, Swahili or Sheng’, that we are constantly shuffling between these worlds, and that one of the biggest limits to understanding Kenya is when you restrict yourself to trying to understand us in English. One of my favourite essays.
D. Blogs and Twitter Accounts (in no particular order, based on recommendations)
- Gathara (gathara) — Editorial cartoonist and essayist Patrick Gathara is known for his scathing observations on Kenya’s political class and his eviscerations of pseudo-intellectualism or ahistorical narratives in the Twitterverse.
- Mzalendo — Keeping Up With Kenyan Parliamentarians is probably the best way to summarise this blog. Don’t get too excited — it’s not salacious in the way you’re thinking. Simply tracks a lot of key data and information about what’s happening in the legislature where all kinds of mischief against the national good is concocted.
- Morris K. — How to describe this blog? Part true crime, part historiography, part contemporary politics. Owaah took Kenya by storm through his recap of the corruption scandal surrounding the collapse of Imperial Bank but his blog is more than that. The historical articles are fascinating and fill knowledge gaps you didn’t know you had.
- Brainstorm (Brainstorm) — Built by two young Kenyan writers Brenda Wambui and Michael Onsando, this blog is a space for Kenyans to do what our print media doesn’t allow us to do — analyse issues in depth and provide more context. They also produce quarterly e-books that are a great place to encounter new writing.
- Wambui Mwangi — sad that this blog hasn’t been updated in a few weeks but what’s up there is a fantastic archive of feminist thought on contemporary Kenya and some fantastic experiments on feminism, art and memory.
- The Thinker’s Room — Memes, politics, lateral thinking and
- Ory Okolloh Mwangi (@kenyanpundit) — perhaps one of Kenya’s best known Twitter handles, this is a great spot to take the temperature on a variety of contemporary conversations about Kenya’s politics and society.
- Keguro Macharia — Keguro is my friend, so I won’t sing his praises too highly lest you accused me of being biased, but just read the blog and come to the conclusion on your own that his brain is the business.
- Chanyado — Built by Aleya Kassam, Chanyado is an ongoing autobiography. Shuffling between personal narrative and political observation, the blog allows you to take a step back and think about the real impact of political or social issues on the individual.
- Feminist Loft — built by Neo Sinoxolo Musangi feminist queer political analysis, experimental writing and alternative perspectives on things that heteronormativity takes for granted.
- Jackson Biko (@bikozulu) (recommended by @drizzylowe) — popular with a lot of Kenyans on social media, Biko is also known as the guy who publicly shamed the British High Commission in Nairobi into giving him a visa.