The most secure business venture in Kenya is running a bookshop. They are never broken into even during riots. Kenyans are said not to have a reading culture, but undaunted, our writers have churned books over the last 50 years, some written in words that could melt a mountain.
You are what you read, so take a pick:
The River Between
This book introduced Ngugi wa Thiong’o as a writer of note when it was published in 1965. Following in the tradition of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, The River Between tackles the issue of the clash between African traditions on one hand, and the white man’s way of life and religion (Christianity) on the other. It stars Waiyaki who wanted to unite the two villages of Kameno and Makuyu through sacrifice and pain. The River Between has been a school set-book several times, and like all Ngugi’s works is set in the colonial period. It was the last under the name James Ngugi whose other works include: Petals of Blood (1977), Devil on the Cross (1980), Matigari, Wizard of the Crow and A Grain of Wheat, arguably his finest literary effort, which was published in 1967.
Going Down River Road
Meja Mwangi has been hailed as Kenya’s foremost writer on urban literature. While his more decorated colleague, Ngugi wa Thiong’o, based his writing in rural settings during the colonial period, Meja Mwangi scoured the Kenyan’s urbanity for his muse. Going Down River Road, released in 1963, is the story of Ben, a former army a lieutenant who now works as a labourer in Nairobi. He survives attacks on his life only to find his girlfriend gone. Alongside Kill me Quick and The Cockroach Dance, Going Down River Road forms some of the best novels tackling urban squalor so graphically you can see in your mind’s eye the street boy who wrestled ugali from a sewer rat! Going Down River Road also has memorable characters like Ben, Ochola, Baby and Yusuf through whom Meja Mwangi introduced a certain romance to Nairobi’s down town, River Road. There are Kenyans who swear that 75-year-old Ngugi cannot hold a candle to the slightly younger Meja Mwangi in writing.
Many Kenyans bending their 40s will confess to secretly – mostly in class and between bed sheets- to reading David Maillu’s ‘adults only’ novels like his 1974 effort After 4.30 that revolved around a prostitute warning newcomers to Nairobi of the dangers of city life. His pocket size books were banned by Kenyatta and Moi regimes for being too pornographic, but remained highly popular, thus making Maillu the father of Kenya’s pop literature through My Dear Bottle, For Mbatha and Rabeka, Thorns of life, My Dear Mariana, Kadosa and Unfit for Human Consumption.
Betrayal in the City
Betrayal in the City recently made its way back as a school set book. Published in 1976, this is the one play that put the late Francis Imbuga (pictured above) on the literary map for addressing the problems of independence and freedom in post-colonial Africa states. Betrayal in the City has memorable characters like Jere and Mulili. I can’t recall who among them said: “It was better while we waited. Now we have nothing to look forward to. We have killed our past and are busy killing our future.” Betrayal in the City is one of Kenya’s most popular plays besides Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s I will Marry when I Want. Imbuga’s other works include The Man of Kafira, Return of Mgofu and Shrine of Tears.
Across the Bridge
“Hail jail! The house for all. The only house where a government minister and a pickpocket dine together, work, discuss matters on equal terms. The only place where equality is exercised regardless the social class.”… Or so goes the beginning of Mwangi Gicheru’s 1979 novel, Across the Bridge that tackles love and wealth versus poverty. It tells the story of Chuma who laments that he is “a factory reject. That’s what I was. Made up of third class material. The leftovers of creation. I suspect God created me shortly before lunch…..he left me incomplete.” Chuma, a certified hustle, impregnated Caroline the daughter of rich man Kahuthu in this tale of comic and melancholic proportions. Any book worm over 35 years who has not read Across the Bridge be ashamed of himself, his family and the family that bore his family. Gicheru’s other work is Two in One.
My Life in Crime
John Kiriamiti’s My Life in Crime is by Kenyan standards a best-seller, and the most read novel yet. When it was released in 1984, Nairobians made bee lines outside bookshops for the first time. Kiriamiti, the reformed bank robber who never cleared from Nairobi School wrote the book while serving time at Kamiti Maximum Prison. This crime thriller, a fictionalised account of Kiriamiti’s life as a criminal, captured the imaginations of young Kenyans with memorable characters like Jack Zollo. Nairobi Senator Mike Sonko Mbuvi once confessed how reading My Life in Crime gave him the courage to escape from the heavily guarded Shimo La Tewa Prison. There was talk that My Life in Crime would be turned into a movie, but the initial excitement has since fizzled. Kiriamiti’s other novels include Son of Fate and Sinister Trophy.
The River and the Source
The River and the Source won the late Dr Margaret Ogola the Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 1995 besides bagging the prestigious Commonwealth Writer’s Prize for Africa the same year. The novel that traces the lives of three generations of women is an epic story spanning cultures. Filled with laughter and tears, the tale became a school set book shortly after its publication.
Poems from East Africa
It was edited by David Rubadiri and David Cook who introduced latter-day famous poets: Okot p’Bitek, Jonathan Kariara, Jared Angira, Henry Barlow, Taban Lo Liyong and their flowering 1960s poetry from 50 poets and their variegated styles of lyricism. This anthology was published in 1971.
Son of Woman
An instant best-seller when it was released in 1971, this novel by Charles Mangua starring Dodge Kimonye as the son of a slut has been reprinted six times and rests easy among the finest of Kenya’s pop fiction. Son of Woman is a humorous and cynical account of the unsavoury aspects of social change. Mangua’s other works include Son of Woman in Mombasa, A Tail in the Mouth and Kanina and I.
From Charcoal to Gold
The late Njenga Karume’s 2009 autobiography Beyond Expectations: From Charcoal to Gold is probably the very first of such genre to have captured the psyche of Kenyans, besides Andrew Morton’s 1999, Moi: The making of an African Statesman and Duncan Ndegwa’s 2006, Walking in Kenyatta Struggles. From Charcoal to Gold is the fascinating story of Karume’s rags-to-riches life despite little formal education that has also become a must-have motivational book.
Peeling back the Mask
Miguna Miguna’s 2012 Peeling Back the Mask this one read that shook the sheens of Kenyan politics. A biography no less, but many Kenyans will remember it for the unflattering take on former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Miguna was after all Odinga’s close confidant and political adviser. It was after the two fell out that Miguna decided to publish the book. For months, this book sparked heated political debate with supporters and detractors of the former Lang’ata MP taking opposite sides. Peeling Back the Mask also takes the cake for sheer trouble making besides some quarters postulating that the book dealt a mortal blow to Odinga’s chances of ascending to the presidency in the March 2013 elections.