“The responsibility of a writer is to excavate the experience of the people who produced him,” counsels the great African American writer, James Baldwin. In contemplating my society, I looked back to its founding, which led to an assessment of the last days of the British occupation of Kenya and to my novel, Dance of the Jakaranda.
As a work of historical fiction, there was the expectation, perhaps, that I should draw from colonial history to create a popular account. Mindful that the British were hostile witnesses to our past, and thereby unreliable narrators of that experience, I used poetic licence to reimagine that history. History, after all, is replete with fiction. (If you doubt that, glance through Dorothy Hammond and Alta Jablow’s book The Africa That Never Was: Four Centuries of British Writing About Africa.)
This all raises interesting questions: should historical fiction be considered factual, in the same way filmmakers create films “based on” true events, even when the original history was probably fictionalised?
My challenge was different. Within months of its release, three central events in the novel found echoes or parallels in fact: a new railway line was inaugurated, replacing the century-old track whose creation is recalled in my story; Kenyans of Indian extraction – central to the book – were officially recognised as the 44th “tribe” of Kenya, and a controversial presidential election saw two men claim to be the “father” of the nation, echoing a paternity dispute in the novel.
I do not claim artistic prescience for anticipating these events; it was a simple affirmation of yet another Baldwinian truism: “History is not the past. It is the present.” Here, then, are 10 books exploring contemporary or historical Kenya.
1. A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The last of his foundational trilogy on culture and society – the others are Weep Not, Child, and The River Between – this novel evaluated what political independence heralded for ordinary citizens in the early 60s. Mugo is a hermit whom locals mistake for a freedom hero, but who is privately burdened by other troubles, and his unravelling signals the denouement of one of Ngugi’s finest novels.
2. Coming to Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
This deceptively simple novel by a Kenyan of British origin chronicles the life of Paulina, 16, coming of age at a time of rapid social change in Kenya. She leaves the village for the city to join her new husband, Martin, himself a recent arrival. For a while, Martin’s heavy-handedness procures Paulina’s cooperation, but does not quell her desire for self-reliance and self-discovery.
3. Going Down River Road by Meja Mwangi
This riveting novel explores Nairobi’s underbelly to expose the vicissitudes of life for the emerging underclass who operate on the margins of this once-segregated society. Although River Road is the fictional locale, a Nairobi street by the same name teems with life – day and night – mirroring the universe inhabited by Mwangi’s characters.
4. The Promised Land by Grace Ogot
A pioneering female writer, Ogot worked as a nurse, journalist, politician and diplomat and this 1966 novel placed her, alongside Charity Waciuma, among the first Kenyan female authors to be published. Set in 1930s, The Promised Land is evocative of a biblical utopia, chronicling the rise of a Kenyan émigré in northern Tanganyika (Tanzania). He prospers until a mysterious scourge strikes that no western medicine can cure, and ultimately resorts to traditional medicine.
5. Three Days on the Cross by Wahome Mutahi
In 2003, when independence party Kanu was defeated after nearly 40 years in power, the nation was horrified when the door to the basement of Nyayo House in Nairobi creaked open, to reveal dungeons where hundreds had been tortured by state agents in the preceding 20 years. But to an older generation, the Nyayo narratives were eerily familiar: satirist Mutahi had documented his travails there in this novel set in “an unnamed African nation”, reflecting the climate of fear at the height of Kanu autocracy.
6. Across the Bridge by Mwangi Gicheru
For decades after Chinua Achebe’s groundbreaking 1958 novel Things Fall Apart, Kenyan and African literature was primarily midwifed through Heinemann’s now defunct African Writers Series, which sought to capture the spirit of a changing continent. This gradually became entrenched as the African canon, where fiction was adjudged as “good” or “bad” simply from its aesthetic choices. Gicheru, alongside Charles Mangua and David Maillu were at the vanguard of a literary revolution with their more popular fiction. This novel is a compelling teenage romance exploring the class divide in Kenya.
7. The Last Villains of Molo by Kinyanjui Kombani
A banker turned novelist, Kombani belongs to a generation of younger Kenyan writers grappling with their complex heritage, where bad politics breeds violence that darkens their prospects. Kinyanjui was himself a victim of so-called tribal clashes in the Rift Valley in the early 90s that were a politically instigated pogrom orchestrated by Kanu bigwigs to displace voters in opposition strongholds. As it turned out, those clashes were a dress rehearsal for the 2008 meltdown, in which 1,000 people were killed. Molo, the fictional locale of Kombani’s novel about the precarious lives of five young men, was not spared in either period.
8. Dust by Yvonne Owuor
Also telling of Kenya’s violent past is this novel, released in 2014 to critical acclaim. The story sets off in the aftermath of the 2007-08 political convulsions, and hurtles back through decades of turbulence that roiled the nation, from the Mau Mau war of liberation in the 50s, to the assassination of politician Tom Mboya in 1969.
9. Tale of Kasaya by Eva Kasaya
In its 15-year life, the writers’ collective Kwani Trust is credited with discovering numerous writers, but none is more inspiring than Eva Kasaya, a former domestic servant whose memoir was released in 2010. Forced out of school at 14 by lack of money to pay fees, Kasaya secures work as a house servant. A series of different households in which she lives become nightmarish, and she survives rape attempts, starvation and enduring physical and psychological abuse.
10. My Life in Crime by John Kiriamiti
Kenya’s colourful lexicon recently acquired another inventive term, “over-stealing”, which intimates larceny on a grander scale, as happened last year when Kenya’s devolution and youth ministry was looted, and the cash later stashed in sacks under the bed of a “hairdresser” with connections to top politicos. Over-stealing has become a national obsession, boosting the success of this memoir. It recalls the exploits of a bank robber who drops out of school and joins the underworld, graduating from petty theft to organised crime, and making a specialty of bank heists.