An introduction to Kenyan literature featuring:
Binyavanga Wainaina / Grace Ogot / Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o / Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor / Peter Kimani / Nanjala Nyabola
Kenyan literature is made up of a vast array of written and oral works emanating from the East African nation. Many of the works are folklore passed down from generation to generation while others are insightful probes into the richly diverse contemporary cultures of the land, its long history and its intriguing peoples.
As such, it would be foolish to assume — as has been done in the past — that Kenyan literature began with the advent of British colonisation and the introduction of the English language. At the time, English was forced upon the people as a way to enact cultural replacement, much like the French policy of assimilation. However, locals soon repurposed this tool meant for native destruction into a weapon of growth, revolution, and in time, evolution. Far from abolishing traditional tales, English became one of two national languages (the other being Swahili) that Kenyan writers could unite under to share their individual norms and beliefs not only within the country, but throughout the globe.
This guide presents some of the best English-language Kenyan literary works published between pre-independence and the early 21st century. Genres covered include literary fiction, contemporary fiction, poetry, satire, autobiography and children’s books. There is fun and laughter, crime and intrigue, political and social commentary, folkore and mythology. Of course, a Kenyan literature guide wouldn’t be complete without Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.
Dive into this introduction of seminal Kenyan literature and remember — the best is likely yet to come.
1. One Day I Will Write About This Place by Binyavanga Wainaina
When Binyanvanga Wainaina’s visionary novella Discovering Home won the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2002, its signaled a literary renaissance in Kenya and East Africa. Nine years later, he released One Day I Will Write About This Place, a memoir chronicling the lead-up to and aftermath of that momentous victory.
In the book, Wainaina looks back on seminal events that inspired his writing career starting from his middle-class upbringing in post-independent Kenya. It then describes his failed attempt to pursue studies in South Africa, chronicles a touching family reunion in Uganda, and describes his various experiences travelling around Kenya and East Africa.
What a wonderful thing, I think, if it was possible to spend my life inhabiting the shapes and sounds and patterns of other people.Binyavanga Wainaina, One Day I Will Write About This Place
Described as a love letter to contemporary Kenyan life, One Day I Will Write About This Place offers a glimpse into the experimental and modern literature coming out of Kenya and the East African region as a whole.
2. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot
Grace Ogot made history when she became the first African woman writer to have her English language works published in 1962 and 1964. Her first full-length novel, The Promised Land, was published in 1966, three years after Kenya gained its independence from British rule.
In the story, she charts the journey of a young farmer and his wife after they migrate from Kenya to Tanzania. As they try to settle into their new home, the couple finds themselves embroiled in tribal conflict with their suspicious new neighbours. The disputes between them and the community grow in proportion to their prosperity, eventually boiling over into a devastating climax.
A prominent author in both English and Dholuo, Ogot’s works have earned praise for their commentary on social issues such as gender equality, tribal interactions and the pursuit of wealth and happiness. The Promised Land has particularly been lauded for its depiction of empathetic characters who struggle with the Pan-African concepts of family, tribe and community.
3. Tracking the Scent of My Mother by Muthoni Garland
Author and storyteller Muthoni Garland said that her short read Tracking the Scent of My Mother was inspired “by the climate of private fear in which many children and women in our part of the world exist.”
It tells of the coming-of-age of a young girl who struggles to reconcile the things that she sees with the things that she knows by relating them to the greatest influence in her life — her mother.
The world speaks in proverbs, as my father used to say, and anyone who is intelligent will understand.Muthoni Garland, Tracking the Scent of My Mother
Described as a tragicomedy about an incest survivor, Garland’s novella was shortlisted for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2006.
4. The Cockroach Dance by Meja Mwangi
As a novelist and screenwriter, Meja Mwangi’s darkly humorous takes on contemporary Kenyan issues have earned him awards both locally and abroad. His 1979 offering The Cockroach Dance is no different, this time focusing on the urban plights of young city-dwellers struggling to make a success of themselves.
The story is told from the point of view of Dusman Gonzaga, a parking metre reader who lives in the Dacca House slum apartments. A sarcastic individual who views the world around him with contempt, Dusman tires of the deplorable conditions of his rented home, overrun as it is by cockroaches. He then attempts to remedy the situation by organising his neighbours into protesting against the landlord, but his intentions are met with a lukewarm reception.
He would die a parking metre reader. When they buried him, they would place a parking metre on his grave for a headstone with the inscription – Here lies the one who thought he could get away.Meja Mwangi, The Cockroach Dance
A hilarious look into the lives of city dwellers trying to beat poverty, The Cockroach Dance is as relevant today as it was four decades ago.
5. Betrayal in the City by Francis D. Imbuga
Francis D. Imbuga’s 1976 play Betrayal in the City explores the shady socio-political landscape that defined the post-independence years of a majority of African states.
Set in the fictional country of Kafira, the play opens on a dilemma. Married couple Doga and Nina are conducting the final funeral ritual of their son, Adika, who was shot dead for leading a student’s riot. However, the circumstances of his death makes them wonder about the most appropriate way to send him off. Soon, other characters are roped into the story. These include Jusper, the couple’s other son who seems to have abandoned reason for madness, Boss, the compromised head of state, and Boss’s stooges, Mulili and Jere.
Brimming with political mystery and intrigue, Betrayal is an outstanding work of literature by one of Kenya’s most renown playwrights.
6. Hurling Words at Consciousness by Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ
In Hurling Words at Consciousness, poet and author Mukoma wa Ngũgĩ employs imagery, metaphor and other stylistic devices to probe universal questions on life, love, death, war, art, politics, revolution, relationships and many more.
Son of literary juggernaut Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Mukoma has proved himself to be a writer of keen emotional awareness not only in the realm of modern African poetry, but also in fiction writing and non-fiction discourse.
7. Pamela the Probation Officer by Cynthia Hunter
A classic offering by Kenya’s Phoenix Publishers, Pamela the Probation Officer begins on a dramatic note.
Newly qualified probation officer Pamela is interrupted from her morning duties when she finds an abandoned baby placed in front of her office door. What follows is a thrilling story of who, what and when as Pamela teams up with family, friends and colleagues to figure out the mystery behind the baby’s origin.
I must accept all emergencies calmly. I mustn’t panic or I won’t be able to think what to do.Cynthia Hunter, Pamela the Probation Officer
A beloved children’s book that has never gone out of publication, Pamela the Probation officer bears similarities to Cynthia Hunter’s other works by focusing on a young, strong and independent woman making her way in a Kenya that’s likewise coming into its own.
Look out for Hunter’s other exciting offerings Anna the Air Hostess and Truphena City Nurse.
8. How Shall We Kill the Bishop? And Other Stories by Lily Mabura
Lily Mabura’s How Shall We Kill the Bishop? And Other Stories features an eclectic array of characters. There’s the artist in mourning who considers the similarities between a painter’s dying light and actual death, the unemployed lawyer who lingers in a local hospital, the priest who ponders loss and renewal, and many more.
To truly capture a face, my father used to say, you had to take into account what had happened to it before.Lily Mabura, How Shall We Kill the Bishop? And Other Stories
Set in diverse places including Kenya, Namibia, the US and Congo, Mabura’s collection of short stories probes life and all of its unifying oddities. The title work How Shall We Kill the Bishop was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2010. It was thereafter included in the Caine Prize for African Writing anthology titled A Life in Full and Other Stories.
9. A Grain of Wheat by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o’s third novel A Grain of Wheat marked a period of transition in his life. Shortly after its publication in 1967, he renounced Christianity, shed his colonial name James Ngugi, and began to write in his mother tongue, Gikuyu.
Widely described as a difficult yet ultimately fruitful read, A Grain of Wheat shifts between past and present narrations as it unveils the fate that befell a group of villagers during the infamous 1952–1960 Emergency.
Our fathers fought bravely. But do you know the biggest weapon unleashed by the enemy against them? It was not the Maxim gun. It was division among them. Why? Because a people united in faith are stronger than the bombNgũgĩ wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat
By employing stream-of-consciousness technique, Ngũgĩ depicts the devastating physical, psychological and social impact that British colonialism had on the Kenyan people.
10. Petals of Blood by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Released ten years after A Grain of Wheat, Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo’s political satire Petals of Blood caused a local stir upon its release and proved to be the catalyst for the author’s imprisonment by the Kenyan government.
A seemingly simple tale, Petals follows four individuals who escape city life to settle down in the sleepy, pastoral village of Ilmorog. However, their peace is soon interrupted by national police who suspect each of having been complicit in the arson killings of three top officials who had links to the government.
He carried the Bible; the soldier carried the gun; the administrator and the settler carried the coin. Christianity, Commerce, Civilization: the Bible, the Coin, the Gun: Holy Trinity.Ngũgĩ wa Thiongo, Petals of Blood
Through the heavy use of flashbacks and historical memory, Thiong’o’s last English-language work is seen as an artistic damning of Kenya’s corrupt elite in the years following independence. For this reason, Petals has been described as “The definitive African book of the twentieth century.”
11. Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor
Set against the backdrop of the 2007 post-election violence, Dust serves as a contemporary depiction of Kenya’s state of the nation some 40-odd years after independence.
The book opens with news of the death of Odidi Oganda, who was gunned down in the streets of Nairobi on election night for reasons that are as senseless as they are familiar. The tale then pivots between Kenya’s different political eras, from the oppression of colonialism to the political assassinations that marked the immediate post-independence years, all the while exploring how past violence shapes present meaning.
What endures? Echoes of footsteps leading out of a cracking courtyard, and the sound a house makes when it is falling down. What endures?Starting again.Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, Dust
A challenging yet enriching read, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust was shortlisted for the Folio Prize in 2015 and won the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature.
12. Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye’s Coming to Birth interweaves the story of a young woman’s rise to independence with that of her nation’s.
The year is 1956. 16-year-old Paulina moves from her small village in western Kenya to the bustling city of Nairobi with her new husband, Martin. Unaccustomed to urban life and speaking only her native Dholuo, she struggles to navigate her new surroundings and her awkward marriage. In time, however, Paulina learns to assert her own brand of feminine power, and through the joys and tragedies of life, achieves her own version of independence.
A favourite set book in high schools throughout Kenya, Coming to Birth is a delightful tale of female empowerment and a snapshot into what Kenya looked like in its infancy.
13. Facing Mount Kenya by Jomo Kenyatta
Written by Kenya’s first president, Facing Mount Kenya is less of an autobiographical work and more of an anthropological tome on the structures of African society as portrayed by the Kikuyu tribe. Topics explored revolve around life and death, work and play, sex and family life, and spirituality and religion.
Through its valuable socio-cultural insights, Facing Mount Kenya seeks to dismantle arrogant European claims of superiority by offering a thorough documentation of the rich and complex workings of traditional African society.
14. Not Yet Uhuru by Oginga Odinga
Not Yet Uhuru, which translated means Not Yet Freedom, is the 1967 autobiography of Oginga Odinga, one of Kenya’s foremost freedom fighters and a founding father of today’s political opposition.
It offers an alternative look at Kenya’s struggle for independence by outlining the various figures who participated in the fight against British rule. It also charts Kenya’s political scene during and after colonialism, providing a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of the era’s political elite.
Among the Luos of Central Nyanza, the forecasters had said of the White people, If you touch them, the skin will remain in your hand because they are very soft. But they will come with thunderstorms, and they will burn the people.Oginga Odinga, Not Yet Uhuru
Not Yet Uhuru is a must-read for anyone interested in the structure of Kenyan politics as it presents a different yet still important take on past events, all of which informed the composition of the current government.
15. Dance of the Jakaranda by Peter Kimani
Peter Kimani’s historical novel Dance of the Jakaranda primarily tells the story of three men whose lives intertwine in unexpected ways.
Ian Edward McDonald, commonly referred to as Master, is the Brit who built the railroad that cuts across Kenya’s interior. Richard Turnbull, a preacher, is McDonald’s friend, and Babu Salim is an Indian who helped build the railroad.
The villagers clasped their hands and wailed: Yu kiini! Come and see the strips of iron that those strange men planted seasons earlier—which, left undisturbed, had grown into a monster gliding through the land.Peter Kimani, Dance of the Jakaranda
For much of the novel, which starts in the early 1900s, their stories run parallel to each other. Things come to a head in the 1960s when Babu Salim’s grandson, Rajan, stumbles upon their murky shared past while making a living as a singer at the legendary Jakaranda Hotel. The more secrets Rajan uncovers, the more he realises that reality is not as it seems.
Praised for its realistic portrayal of race relations in the richly diverse nation of Kenya, Peter Kimani’s 2017 novel has been nominated for several accolades including The People’s Book Prize and The Big Book Prize in 2018. It was also named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.
16. The River and the Source by Margaret A. Ogola
An epic that spans several decades in the 20th century, Margaret Ogola’s The River and the Source has been a constant feature in Kenya’s high school syllabus for its rich and vivid presentation of Luo culture amid fast-changing world dynamics.
The story spans four generations of Luo women (and the men who stood by them), beginning with the matriarch, Akoko, whose unparalleled grit and vision in pre-colonial Kenya sets the pace for the those who come after her.
After all, who knows the goodness of a tree but he who sits under it’s shade and eats it’s fruits?Margaret A. Ogola, The River and the Source
An evergreen story of love, family and commitment, The River and the Source will no doubt continue to feature in Kenyan literary lists for years, and indeed, generations to come.
17. Three Days on the Cross by Wahome Mutahi
Set in an un-named fictional country ruled by a paranoiac dictator, Wahome Mutahi’s Three Days on the Cross is a story of political bureaucracy akin to Franz Kafka’s The Trial.
The Illustrious One, leader of the nation, has demanded a crackdown on dissidents, and the special police is eager to deliver. As such, they accuse two suspects, a bank employee and newspaper reporter, of colluding with the secretive July 10 Movement to bring down the nation. What follows is a horrific tale of judicial oversights and unfair detention in dungeons and torture chambers hidden away in the capital city of the supposedly civilised nation.
If you want me to manufacture lies, I have no intention of doing so. I am being honest with you, and you had better believe me.Wahome Mutahi, Three Days on the Cross
Written in 1991, Three Days on the Cross is a fictionalised account of the day’s repressive regime. It became an instant bestseller upon its release.
18. My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti
An autobiographical novel, John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime gives an account of his years as a most-wanted bank robber in Kenyan’s 1970’s era of John-Dillinger-type bank robberies.
The story begins with Kiriamiti as a teenager, intelligent and with a promising future. However, his prospects take a turn when he drops out of high school, moves to Nairobi and becomes a petty criminal. In time, Kiriamiti graduates from low-down exploits to big bank jobs, all while gaining infamy under his catchy alias, Jack Zollo. But his forty days as a thief are running out, and the police close in on him with every successful heist…
Within two years, that is, between 1965 and 1967, I had become known to many criminals, from robbers, car breakers, shop breakers to car thieves and racketeers. I had also come to be known by the name of Jack Zollo.John Kiriamit, My Life in Crime
My Life in Crime is a thrilling page-turner that has continued to enjoy massive popularity since its publication in 1984. Its 1989 follow-up My Life With a Criminal: Milly’s Story cemented Kiriamiti’s status as one of the nation’s most successful authors.
19. Son of Woman in Mombasa by Charles Mangua
Published in 1990, Son of Woman in Mombasa is the sequel to Charles Mangua’s notorious 1971 bestseller, Son of Woman. Picking up where the first novel left off, it follows the exploits of Dodge Kiunya, the titular Son of Woman, as he embarks on a career as a blackmarketeer and contemplates running for political seat.
Chock-full of Mangua’s satirical humour, Son of Woman in Mombasa presents a fictionalised portrayal of Kenyan maleness in the post-independence era. The book has been criticised for its casual presentation of misogyny and intolerance, especially when it comes to women, who are depicted as faceless, hardened entities out to entrap the men. Nevertheless, it is still regarded as an enjoyable read that offers valuable insight into the dregs of Kenyan society in the late ’80s, early ’90s.
20. Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics: How the Internet Era is Transforming Politics in Kenya (African Arguments) by Nanjala Nyabola
Nanjala Nyabola’s Digital Democracy explores how digital media – including social media – have influenced the development of Kenya’s social, political and economic sectors.
The book reveals how digital media has shaped Kenyan politics, social justice movements and business. It also looks at how social media has created a space for traditionally marginalised members of society such as women and the disabled.
What is possible online depends on what exists offline.Nanjala Nyabola, Digital Democracy, Analogue Politics
By categorically analysing the impact of digital media on Kenyan and African society, Nyabola unveils the positives and negatives of these modern forms of communication. She also suggests feasible solutions to some of the ongoing digital media challenges that need to be improved on.
21. Links of a Chain by Monica Genya
/Crime, Mystery & Thriller/
Monica Genya’s 1996 spy thriller novel follows a female secret agent as she tries to uncover a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
Susan Juma, a top operative of the Bureau of Investigative Operations, is tasked with investigating a slew of high-level political murders that have been committed in the country. Soon, she uncovers a treacherous plot to overthrow the state’s political leaders that’s spearheaded by the mysterious King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. To foil their plans, Juma recruits retired field agent Chain to help her, and the two embark on a quest to rid the country of the malevolent secret society.
Often left out of Kenya’s literary lists, Links of a Chain is worth a read for its presentation of a strong, female protagonist in the male-dominated field of crime and thriller.
22. Dedan Kimathi: The Real Story by Sam Kahiga
The name Dedan Kimathi evokes mixed reactions from Kenyans and those familiar with Kenyan history. Today, he is widely viewed as a revolutionary hero who stood on the frontlines in the fight against British colonialism. Yet in other quarters, he is remembered as a terrorist. Where lies the truth?
Author Sam Kahiga seeks to uncover this in his documentary fiction novel, Dedan Kimathi: The Real Story. By incorporating witness accounts into his tale about Kenya’s fight for independence as seen from the eyes of Mau Mau fighters, Kahiga attempts to sketch an accurate representation of the flesh-and-blood man that was Dedan Kimathi. How much about the rebel leader was real, and how much was myth? Was he truly a hero, or does he deserve the contempt some throw his way? Most importantly, what led up to his death by execution at the hands of the British, and that infamous picture of him chained to a bed?
Read Kahiga’s story to find out.
23. Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
Environmentalist Wangari Maathai gained world recognition in 2004 when she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her “contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” In her autobiography Unbowed, Maathai tells her life story and traces all that led up to that momentous occasion.
In the book, she speaks of her transformation from rural village girl into the hard-headed environmentalist-slash-political activist who was known for going head-to-head with the oppressive regime of former president Daniel Arap Moi. She also tells of how she established the Green Belt Movement — an environmental sustainability organisation that has since spread from Kenya across Africa — and expounds on her deep-seated love for nature.
Education, if it means anything, should not take people away from the land, but instill in them even more respect for it, because educated people are in a position to understand what is being lost.Wangari Maathai, Unbowed
A compelling narration by one of Kenya’s forerunners of environmental and climate activism, Maathai’s Unbowed is required reading for anyone who’s interesting in changing the world in a holistic manner, starting at the root of the problem.
24. Adventure in Nairobi by Juma Bustani
Juma Bustani’s Adventure in Nairobi is the sequel to his two previous works, Adventure in Nakuru and Adventure in Mombasa.
In this installment, Frank and Truphosa – the young hero and heroine – must work together to help their embattled Uncle Kiki, who is in big trouble with the police after having been framed for murder.
Full of the exciting thrills that defined the previous two books, Adventure in Nairobi is a must-read classic for young Kenyan and African readers.
25. Sulwe by Lupita Nyong’o
A beautiful children’s story by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, Sulwe tackles the pervasive issues of colourism, self-esteem and true beauty in a way that will resonate with Black readers of all ages.
Sulwe, whose skin is the colour of midnight, struggles to see herself as beautiful. For this reason, she feels alienated from everyone in her family and everyone at school. However, a magical journey through the night sky will open her eyes on what true beauty is and change everything.
Brightness is not from your skin, my love. Brightness is just who you are.Lupita Nyong’o, Sulwe
Sulwe was inspired by Nyong’o’s own experiences growing up as a dark-skinned girl in a world that favours light complexions. Available in English, Swahili and Dholuo translations, it is recommended reading for young ones all over the world, regardless of what colour they are.
26. Through My African Eyes by Jeff Koinange
Jeff Koinange is a beloved figure in Kenyan media, drawing in huge audiences with his hard-hitting television interviews and charming wit. However, his rise to the top wasn’t an overnight achievement. It took place over a number of years and was a slow, grinding process replete with the adventurous tales you’d expect from a journalist of his stature.
Jeff narrates a number of these stories in his memoir Through My African Eyes. Starting in his early days hustling in the Kenyan media scene through his years working as a reporter/correspondent for Reuters and CNN, he reveals the little secrets behind his inordinate success, all while maintaining his signature charisma and humour.
Jeff also offers an African take on recent events in the world’s history, including his harrowing experiences as a war correspondent in Darfur, Liberia and Sierra Leone. He also ponders over his numerous career wins, most notably, his status as the first African to win and Emmy and a George Foster Peabody award for his work.
A tantalising look at the inner workings of a notoriously private ‘celebrity of the people,’ Through My African Eyes is the modern Kenyan autobiography for the ages.
Do you have more Kenyan books to add to the list? Let us know what they are in the comments!