Jonas Lähnemann
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Kenyan Literature

Other African authors
non-African authors about Africa

While staying in Kenya I started reading books by Kenyan authors. This literature, mostly fiction, gives an insight into the recent history and current problems of the African continent. So far I read:

Ngugi wa Thiong'o - Kenyan political author
Meja Mwangi - Kenyan author adressing mainly social problems
Other Kenyan authors


** Ngugi wa Thiong'o **

Weep Not Child - 1964
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
Njoroge is going to school and he's the hope of his family. Their fields now belong to the white farmer Howlands and they are living on the land of Jacobo, a relatively well of African. However, when the struggle for independence breaks out life of all the involved becomes a tragedy as they are slowly drawn into it and Njoroges family starts to fall apart, while the conflicts with Jacobo and Howlands deepen.
Ngugi Wa Thiong'o manages, as in many of his books, to depict historic events through the stories of simple people and thus show these events from different sides.

The River Between - 1965
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
The Christian religion is spreading in Kikuyu country. Waiyaki was educated in a missionary school, but still cherishes the traditional values of the Kikuyu. However, he is ahead of his time and finds himself sitting on the fence when baptized and traditional tribesmen are turning against each other instead of facing the white men who are slowly capturing the land.

A Grain of Wheat - 1967
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
Ngugi describes how the population of Thabai are preparing for the Uhuru (independence) festivities. In the course of this the roles of different people during the fight for independence and it's suppression are being reflected, while at the same time describing the situation in the country during this time.
The narration structure is more complex than in Ngugi's earlier novels and does not have a clear protagonist. Not without reason this is considered his best book (it was rated one of the 12 best African books of the 20th century).

Petals of Blood - 1977
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
Munira, Abdulla, Wanja and Karega all came to the insignificant small town Ilmorog for their personal reasons, but in the following years they all witness the development of New Ilmorog as a trading center on the Trans-Africa-Highway, bringing fundamental changes for them and the rest of Ilmorog's population.
A great story describing and analyzing the situation in Kenya during the years following independence. For the simple population this results in many changes, but no improvements of their living conditions, while a small group of Africans has risen to increase their wealth in cooperation with their foreign partners.

I Will Marry When I Want - 1980
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o & Ngugi wa Mirii (Kenya)
This play, originally written in Gikuyu (language of Kenya's biggest tribe), was developed and staged in 1977 together with the rural population around Limuru at the Kamiriithu Cultural Centre. It's theme is the situation of the poor farmers and workers compared with the post- or neocolonial elite in independent Kenya. It's strong message caused the government of president Kenyatta to ban the performance and was a main reason that led to the detention of Ngugi wa Thiong'o, who was only freed a year later after Kenyatta died.

Detained: A writer's prison diary - 1981
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
The Kenyan author Ngugi Wa Thiong'o was detained by Kenyattas (himself once political prisoner of the British and Kenyan president after independence) regime in December 1977. He was released only a year later after Kenyatta's death, but did not get back his position at the university causing him to later go into exile.
In these notes, taken on toilet paper and any other avalaible paper during his detention, he reflects his situation as political prisoner and describes the historical development of the imprisonment of political dissidents in colonial and "neo-colonial" Kenya.

Devil On the Cross - 1982
by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
When Waaringa despairs over her life in Nairobi and returns to her hometown Ilmorog she has to realize that even here neocolonialism and corruption are celebrated on the backs of the simple people.
This book was written by Ngugi during his detention in his mother tongue Gikuyu, partly on toilet paper. While in "Petals of Blood" the criticism of the developments in Kenya after independence and it's aims is woven into the story more decently, this criticism is presented very straight forward and provoking in this book.


** Meja Mwangi **

Kill Me Quick - 1973
by Meja Mwangi (Kenya)
Maina and Meja are coming to town after attaining school certifications looking for work. In the backstreets they live of the supermarket's garbage and a friendship forms. First united, later seperated they fight the obstacles in life. However, times of a certain temporary fortune never last. Finally they meet again in prison.
A gripping introduction to the day to day struggle of the lowest class of the population.

Carcase for Hounds - 1974
by Meja Mwangi
Kenya during the Mau-Mau struggle for independence. Hidden in the forests around Mount Kenya General Haraka leads a gang of freedom fighters. His biggest enemies are Simba, the chief of his village appointed by the British, and Captain Kingsley, who leads Operation Haraka of the British Army.
This is an easy to read book, giving interesting insights about its time and the Mau-Mau guerilla struggle, but on the hand focus very much on a detailed description of the maneuvers of both sides.

Going Down River Road - 1976
by Meja Mwangi (Kenya)
Ben is working on the construction of a skyscraper in Nairobi. There he makes friends with Ocholla. His income hardly covers the most basic living expenses and after payday he spends most of his earnings for temporary moments of happiness in pubs and brothels. When he meets Wini and moves in with her and her son Baby everything looks good for him. But will the fortunate times last long?

The Bushtrackers - 1979
by Meja Mwangi (Kenya)
A story describing an unbelievable amount of violence: Johnny and Frank are Rangers in Kenya's Tsavo National Park involved in the war on poachers. As Johnny quits his job to found a family he has to realize that life in Nairobi won't give him the desired peace. But, he is not the type of guy who will just accept his fate and with the help of his buddy Frank he unveils a network of organized crime and poaching, led by the Black American Al-Haji.
Luckily at least the issue of poaching is not so serious anymore nowadays, as international trade control has become more effective in the field of poaching products and the game population is slowly increasing again.

The Last Plague - 2000
by Meja Mwangi (Kenya)
Crossroads is dying. AIDS threatens to wipe out the whole town. Janet tries her best to fight against hopelessness and get people to use her free condoms. However, ignorance, prejudices and especially traditions and the framework of power make her work extremely difficult. Only when her husband Broker, with whom she does not want to put up again after he left her ten years ago, comes back and joins the small group of activists, things slowly begin to change a little.
This book is a packing and detailed analysis of the problem of AIDS in the African context.


** Other Kenyan authors **

Kwani? - 2003,2004
various authors (Kenya)
The Kwani Trust (kwani - short form of kwa nini: why) published it's second book in 2004, the thir is supposed to be in preparation. The Kwani books consist of short stories, reports, poems, songs and comics and everyone can submit their work to them. Even if they do not have the literary quality of some famous authors, they give interesting and diverse insights into modern Kenya. Their actuality probably accounts for their popularity. Additionally Kwani organizes readings once a month, where sometimes works from famous international authors are read out, however, always some of the Kwani authors also get the chance to present their stories or poems.

The Missing Links - 2001
by Tobias O. Otieno (Kenya)
Obanjo and Nyakane marry after a pregnancy that prevents her from finishing school. At first she has to live with his mother in a rural village, while he builds up an existence in Nairobi. Life in the village is not always pleasant, but the city also has its shady sides. While it seems to be a happy family in the beginning, the "missing links" become more obvious with time. The situation escalates when Obanjo has an affair and wants to take his girl friend as second wife.
Through this narration Tobias Otieno gives some detailed insights into the life of a population group that neither belongs to the privileged, nor to the poorest groups of the society.

The Strange Bride - 1989
by Grace Ogot
This story is based on an old Luo, a West-Kenyan tribe, story. The quiet life of the people of Got Owanga is disturbed when the mysterious, but beautiful, Nyawir appears and gets married to the son of the local priest. Her unconventional appearance and behaviour is met with suspicion from the very beginning and leads to a catastrophe, which in turn results in profound changes in the way of living of these people.

I Shall Walk Alone - 2002
by Paul Nakitere (Kenya)
With the story of Mwache, the rainmaker, who endeavors on the search for the reason of the death of his daughters, Nakitere describes aspects of a traditional African society in western Kenya. In their life, not yet affected by missionaries and colonization, strong beliefs in magical powers play an important role.

What a Husband - 1973
by Mwangi Ruheni (Kenya)
Bored by married life the drive for adventures awakens in the narrator and he puts up with gem smugglers. Following this a lot of exciting things happen and luckily it always turns in his favor.
Easy readable entertainment, but nothing more either.

Facing Mount Kenya - 1930
by Jomo Kenyatta (Kenya)
This book is the doctoral thesis of Jomo Kenyatta who later became Kenya's first president after independence. Without direct political comments he analyses the culture of his tribe, the Gikuyu (Kenya's biggest tribe). It is an interesting description of the customs, rites and habits of the Gikuyu, from education and power structures up to religious beliefs and magical practices.
Astonishing that this author later turned out to be a dictatorial ruler.

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