Some of the books set in Kenya have gone on to win awards and films have been made about a few. And why not? The mixture of memoirs and fiction showcase the rich Kenyan culture through the eyes of each author. Get ready for a roller-coaster ride, from the precolonial era to the modern age.
Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai was one of the most revered women in Kenya. She was determined, letting nothing (and no one) stand in her way. She chronicles her struggle from an early age in her rural home (to get an education when women were not allowed to do so), to becoming the first woman to head a university department. In 1977, she started the Green Belt Movement to plant trees across Kenya and to stop land grabs. This resulted in a lot of run-ins with the Kenyan government. In 2004 she was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
West with the Night by Beryl Markham
Beryl Markham is a stark contrast to Wangari. She tells of her life in Kenya during the 1920s and 1930s when colonialism had a tight grip on Kenya. She is said to be the first woman to cross the Pacific Ocean alone. That last part is debatable, but she certainly made the first female crossing. In the book, Beryl writes of her aviation adventures and her horse training days in Kenya.
My Maasai Life: From Suburbia to Savannah by Robin Wiszowaty
Robin Wiszowaty was a normal girl living in the middle-class suburbs of Illinois until her life was upended during her gap year in Kenya. She ends up in an impoverished part of Maasailand. Living under the guidance of her adopted mother, ‘she is forced to face issues she’s never considered: extreme poverty, drought, female circumcision, corruption – and discovers love in the most unexpected places’.
Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds by Joy Adamson
This is an account of Elsa’s journey, a lion cub adopted by conservationists Joy Adamson and her husband, George. They raised her so she could return to the wild after Joy killed Elsa’s mother, having mistaken her for a male lion.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen)
This is, perhaps, the most recognised book about Kenya and was made into a movie. In the book, the author repeatedly fails to differentiate the country from the continent. She refers to Kenya as Africa throughout the book. The opening line, though, ‘I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills’, captures a lot of readers’ imaginations.
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
The book is set to the backdrop of the Mau Mau rebellion, in a small village, four days before Kenya’s independence from Britain. Ngugi wa Thiong’o employs flashback to transport the reader to the Emergency Period (1952-1960), during which colonialists detained and tortured civilians. The book reveals the role each villager played towards liberation and the secrets they held.
The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
This riveting murder mystery is set in Northern Kenya. Tessa Quayle has just been murdered. Justin, her husband, travels to Northern Kenya to find out what happened to his beloved wife. In the process, he uncovers more about Tessa than he ever thought imaginable. The book has been made into a movie directed by Fernando Meirelles.
The Elephant Dropping by Bruce Trzebinski
This witty and humorous book is Bruce Trzebinski first novel. An English banker, learns firsthand about corruption in Kenya as he deals with an Indian businessman and his Arab accomplice, unscrupulous police officers, and a street-smart prostitute.
Death in Kenya by M.M. Kaye
Victoria Caryll is offered a job at Flamingo, her aunt’s family estate in the Rift Valley. She is excited to go back in the hopes of seeing Eden DeBrett, her ex-fiancé. But things do not turn out for the best. She finds a sombre environment, with people still recovering from the Mau Mau rebellion, as well as a murder in the family.
Murder on Safari by Elspeth Huxley
A royal family visits Kenya in the 1930s for a safari, but Lady Baradale’s prized jewellery is stolen. Vachell, a young Canadian officer, is called in to investigate but it soon turns into a murder case when Lady Baradale is found dead with a gunshot wound to her head.