Literature of Kenya

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Poetry and Literature of Kenya

Quote from Travel Guide Kenya:

The oldest form of written poetry in Kenya is from the coast.
Swahili poetry reads beautifully even if you don't understand the words. Written for at least 300 years, and sung for a good deal longer, it's one of Kenya's most enduring art forms. An Anthology of Swahili Poetry has been compiled and rather woodenly translated by Ali A Jahadmy (o/p), but some of Swahili's best-known classical compositions from the Lamu archipelago are included, with pertinent background.
There's a more enjoyable anthology of romantic and erotic verse, A Choice of Flowers , with Jan Knappert 's idiosyncratic translations and interpretations (o/p), and the same linguist's Four Centuries of Swahili Verse (Darf, UK & US), which expounds and creatively interprets at much greater length.

Up-country poetry in the sense of written verse is a recent form. But oral folk literature was often relayed in the context of music, rhythm and dance.

Wole Soyinka (editor) Poems of Black Africa (Heinemann, UK). A hefty and catholic selection. Its Kenyan component includes the work of Abangira, Jared Angira, Jonathan Kariara and Amin Kassam.

Heinemann Book of African Poetry (Heinemann, UK/US). Includes the work of Kenyan poet Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye.





Literature of Kenya,
© 2004 EasyTravel.com

Although a number of authors have written in the older languages of Kenya, English still predominates as the medium for artistic expression, a situation which creates dilemmas for writers struggling both to reach a readership at home and to find viable channels for publication. Most Kenyan fiction is more cheaply available in Kenya than abroad.

Wahome Mutahi How to be a Kenyan (Kenway Pubications, Kenya) A satirical view of Kenyan life by one of the country's most popular newspaper columnists. Painfully funny, and rather close to the bone, the book takes a humorous look at Kenya's very worst side - it won't put you off the country, but it will certainly give you a chuckle at Kenya's expense. Mutahi followed it up with a sideswipe at Kenyan women entitled How to be a Kenyan Lady .

Renato Kizito Sesana Father Kizito's Notebook (Koinonia Media Centre, Kenya) Kenyan life from the Catholic perspective of Fr Kizitos weekly columns in the Sunday Nation. Full of insights into the struggle to survive that most people here call life, infused with humour and compassion.


Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) Out of Africa (Penguin, UK/Vintage, US). This has become something of a cult book, particularly in the wake of the movie. First published in 1937, it describes Blixen's life (Dinesen was a nom de plume) on her Ngong Hills coffee farm between the wars. Read today, it seems to hover uncertainly between contemporary literature and historical document. It's an intense read - lyrical, introspective, sometimes obnoxiously and intricately racist, but worth pursuing and never superficial, unlike the film. Karen Blixen's own Letters from Africa 1914-1931 (trans. Anne Born, Chicago UP, US) gives posthumous insights.
Harry Hook The Kitchen Toto (o/p). By way of an antidote to a surfeit of settlers' yarns, this screenplay tells the story of Mwangi, a Kikuyu houseboy caught up in the early stages of the Mau Mau rebellion. Writer-director Hook's movie is as keen as a country panga and draws masterful performances from a largely unknown cast.

Elspeth Huxley The Flame Trees of Thika (o/p); The Mottled Lizard (o/p). Based on her own childhood, from a prolific author who also wrote numerous works on colonial history and society, including White Man's Country , a biography of the settlers' doyen, Lord Delamere , and Out in the Midday Sun: My Kenya , both as readable, if also predictable, as any. Her last book, Nine Faces of Kenya (Harvill, UK) is a somewhat dewy-eyed anthology of colonial East African ephemera. More interesting is the collection of her mother's letters, Nellie's Story , which includes some compelling coverage of the Mau Mau years from the pen of a likeably eccentric settler.

Beryl Markham West with the Night (Penguin, UK/Northpoint, US). Markham made the first east-west solo flight across the Atlantic. This is her only book about her life in the interwar Kenya colony, drawing together adventures, landscapes and contemporary figures. Not great literature, but highly evocative.

Richard Meinertzhagen Kenya Diary 1902-1906 (o/p). The haunting day-to-day narrative of a young British officer in the protectorate. Meinertzhagen's brutal descriptions of "punitive expeditions" are chillingly matter-of-fact and make the endless tally of his wildlife slaughter pale inoffensively in comparison. As a reminder of the savagery that accompanied the British intrusion, and a stark insight into the complex mind of one of its perpetrators, this is disturbing, highly recommended reading. Good photos, too.

Judith Thurman Isak Dinesen: The Life of a Story Teller (Penguin, UK/Picador, US). A biography that sets the record straighter and was the source of much of the material for the Out of Africa film.

Errol Trzebinski The Lives of Beryl Markham (Mandarin, UK/Norton, US). In which, among much else, it is suggested that Markham did not, and could not, have written West with the Night .


Justin Cartwright Masai Dreaming (Picador, UK/Random House, US). A compelling novel juxtaposing a film-maker's vision of Maasai-land with the barbarities of the Holocaust, linked by the tapes of a Jewish anthropologist.

Jeremy Gavron Moon (Penguin, UK). Vivid short novel about a white boy growing up on a farm during the Emergency.

Martha Gellhorn The Weather in Africa (Eland, UK). Three absorbing novellas, each dealing with aspects of the Europe-Africa relationship, set on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, in the "White Highlands" of Kenya and on the tourist coast north of Mombasa.

David Lambkin The Hanging Tree (Penguin, UK/Counterpoint, US). A human-nature-through-the-ages saga which makes a good yarn - in fact, several yarns.

John Le Carré The Constant Gardener (Hodder Headline, UK). The spymaster turns his hand to a whodunnit, in which a campaigner against the misdeeds of Western drug companies in Kenya is raped and murdered. Her husband, a British diplomat in Nairobi, fails to believe official explanations and starts his own investigation. Effectively banned in Kenya, the novel is brilliantly crafted, though not always convincing in its portrayal of today's expat society.

Paul Meyer Herdsboy (Northwest Publishing, US). American tourist "finds herself captive of a native tribe". A pacey first novel, set in Samburu-land, that overcomes the jacket description.

Maria Thomas Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage (Serpent's Tail, UK/Soho Press, US). Most of these tales are set in Kenya or Tanzania. Thomas's characters are solid, but the stories leave a wearying aftertaste as if there were nothing positive to be had from the expatriate experience. Her first novel, Antonia Saw the Oryx First , is painfully detailed - a good antidote to Out of Africa .

Barbara Wood Green City in the Sun (Pan, UK) A white settler family come into conflict with a Kikuyu medicine woman in one of the few credible novels about the realities of colonial Kenya by a mzungu writer.

ARTS of Kenya

Jane Barbour and Simiyu Wandibba Kenyan Pots and Potters (o/p). This comprehensive description of pot-making communities includes techniques, training, marketing and sociological perspectives.

Roy Braverman Islam and Tribal Art (o/p). A useful paperback text for the dedicated.
Susan Denyer African Traditional Architecture (Holmes & Meier, UK). Useful and interesting, with hundreds of photos (most of them old) and detailed line drawings.

Frank Willett African Art (Thames & Hudson, UK/US). An accessible volume; good value, with a generous illustrations-text ratio.

Geoffrey Williams African Designs from Traditional Sources (Dover, UK/US). A designer's and enthusiast's sourcebook, from the copyright-free publishers.

Look here for more books on

History and peoples
Mountain, hiking and diving guides
Coffee-table books



...................Writers of Kenya

Ali Mazrui
Charles Mangua
David Maillu
Grace Ogot
Jaramogi Oginga Odinga
John Kiriamiti
Jomo Kenyatta
Margaret Ogola
Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye
Meja Mwangi
Micere Githae Mugo
Ngugi wa Thiongo
Renato Kizito Sesana
Sam Kahiga
Thomas Akare
Wahome Mutahi
Yusuf K Dawood

To be continued.

Click here for more LINKS to authors of Kenya


Caroline Nderitu


Caroline Nderitu, an Introduction at the Kenya Saijiki Forum


Patrick Wafula's Bizzare Tales
"I love teaching children and writing stories for them. I also enjoy writing stories for the youth and adult. "

Read these fascinating tales online

Patrick Wafula and the KENYA SAIJIKI


You may like to visit the web sites of these two Nairobi bookshops for further inspiration :

Legacy Bookshop, located in Yaya Centre, Hurlingham, and also selling by internet :

Text Book Centre, located in Kijabe Street and in Sarit Centre, Westlands, where it has two separate shops -- one for textbooks and the other for a diverse range of literature, fiction and non fiction, photographic books, self-improvement books, children's books, stationary, art and office supplies.


Sasa Sema Publications have provided a wonderful series of books especially for children. The lives of many notable Africans are recorded to ensure that these heroes are never lost no matter where we are.

Related words

***** Music of Kenya, by Douglas Paterson

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Gabi Greve / Isabelle Prondzynski
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