Do you have an upcoming trip? Whether it’s for business or pleasure, there’s a sure fire way to increase the awesomeness of your travel experience: Check out a book.
But not just any book. Check out a book that was written about the place you’re going. Whether you’re headed to Rome, Hong Kong, or St. George, we have a book that will help you connect with that place, its culture and its history.
A couple years ago I spent a few months at a girls school in Kenya. I had a wonderfully immersive experience made only better by the fact that while I was there I was pretty dedicated to reading literature written by people who actually lived, or had lived, in Kenya. Doing this helped broaden my perspective of this young, postcolonial country that I was trying to understand. Here are 5 of my favorite Kenyan books:
OUT OF AFRICA
By Isak Dinesen
This is one of the most familiar Kenyan literature titles thanks to the movie featuring Meryl Streep. Karen Blixen (pen name, Isak Dinesen) writes her biographical memoir of life on a Kenyan coffee farm when Kenya was still a British colony. She was one of many Danes who migrated to Kenya, where the Danish presence remains strong to this day. Her home has been converted into a historical memorial and museum, and while the area that was once her plantation has become part of Nairobi, the locals still refer to the entire area as “Karen.” Blixen’s views are decidedly white-washed, but she still gives a lovely and honest account of what it was like for an educated, single (married but separated) white woman to take up living in a completely foreign environment.
WEST WITH THE NIGHT
By Beryl Markham
This is another Kenyan colonial memoir. I picked this up because I was told by a fellow literature BA that it had some of the most beautiful prose she’d ever read. She wasn’t wrong. Both Markham and Dinesen paint a beautiful picture of the fantastic Kenyan landscape that is so foreign to many of us living in the US. This is also another great feminist tale as Markham shares her experiences as a single, woman pilot in the African bush. One of her most intense scenes involves an elephant hunt with a murderous bull elephant. While reading this, the locals had already made sure I was scared to death of these big, beautiful creatures, but this scene solidified that fear. Interestingly enough, if you read Out of Africa and wonder where Blixen’s husband is, you can find him hanging out with Markham in this tale, proving how close knit the white settlers were at this time.
By Wangari Maathai
There’s no way my reading list would be complete without this amazing autobiography by Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize winner for her work with the Green Belt Movement. She was the personal hero of many of the girls on campus, and her views gave me important insight into both the environmental and political crises facing the country. Unbowed is the perfect title for this book about a woman who never stepped back from a fight if she knew the cause would help her country.
Unfortunately, the Provo library doesn’t own the following two books, but they are still worth looking up.
A GRAIN OF WHEAT
By Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo
Even though the Provo library doesn’t currently own any of the fictional works of renowned Kenyan writer, Ngũgĩ wa Thiongʼo, we do have his autobiography, BIRTH OF A DREAM WEAVER: A WRITER'S AWAKENING. A Grain of Wheat is worth a read if you’re at all interested in the Kenyan independence movement of the 50s. It’s an emotion-driven tale of the controversy that overshadowed the personal lives of everyone leading up to Uhuru. For me, this was an important glimpse into the feelings of someone who actually lived through these turbulent times and the resulting aftermath.
THE RIVER AND THE SOURCE
By Margaret A. Ogola
I read this book in tandem with the girls at the school where I was living. This amazing tale follows a family through 4 generations, spanning from tribal life in the bush, through university degrees and life in the city. This tale covers love, loss, disease, and political instability as the family tries to survive and stay true to their roots. Akoko, the first protagonist, is heralded throughout as the matriarch of the family, the source of the river.