A Journey to Independence: The 8 Best Books to Understand Kenya

Amboseli National Park, Kenya/Photo by Sergey Pesterev on Unsplash

Home to some of the earliest evidence of humanity’s existence, Kenya has been described as the “cradle of humanity.” It is a country with stunning scenery and a vibrant culture that is, unfortunately, in a near constant struggle with poverty, unemployment, and devastating drought. Under British colonial rule from 1888 to 1962, Kenya was a pivotal region in the African Nationalist movement of the twentieth century and the decolonization of Africa.

Kenya features one of the African continent’s strongest literary traditions, buoyed by a flourishing local publishing community that is slowly gaining international prominence. Kenyan literature often deals with themes of identity, the challenges that face the country and its people, and the tumultuous push for independence from British colonialism. The books and novels below, many of which are written by Kenyan authors, provide insight into the remarkable country and its complex history.

  • The cover of the book A Grain of Wheat

    A Grain of Wheat

    Ngugi Wa Thiong’o is a true icon of African literature. His works have had a substantial influence on not only Kenyan literature, but African literature as well. A Grain of Wheat follows a group of villagers during the throes of Kenya’s push for independence. It is a complex, interwoven tale of betrayal, friendship, and political turmoil. Ngugi Wa Thiong’o has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in Literature, and spent more than a year in prison in the 1970s for his writing before going into exile abroad.

  • The cover of the book One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir

    One Day I Will Write About This Place: A Memoir

    This memoir from Binyavanga Wainaina offers a fascinating and compelling view into Kenyan life. Wainaina recounts his life from his earliest days growing up in a middle class family – he recalls the sights and sounds of his mother’s beauty parlor, and his years as a student in South Africa. It is a vivid account of Wainaina’s life and the world surrounding him, all set against a shifting and volatile political landscape that has had a profound effect on Wainaina’s views on family and his country.

  • The cover of the book Dust


    The murder of a young man in Nairobi causes a string of shattering events in this powerful novel from Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. Spanning Kenya’s turbulent push for independence in the 1950s and 60s, Dust is a chronicle of long-held family secrets, grief, and deep emotional scars in a conflicted nation struggling to reach autonomy.

  • The cover of the book It's Our Turn to Eat

    It's Our Turn to Eat

    Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat recounts the gripping, true-life story of John Githongo, a Kenyan journalist and activist. After joining the administration of newly elected Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki as anti-corruption czar, Githongo discovered a deep-seated and pervasive system of corruption. His efforts to blow the whistle on the scandal would force his eventual self-imposed exile to Britain and nearly derail his career. Githongo’s enthralling story reads like a top-rate political thriller.

  • The cover of the book Out of Africa

    Out of Africa

    and Shadows on the Grass

    Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen) arrived in British East Africa – now modern Kenya – in 1913 at the age of 28. She and her husband, a Swedish nobleman, settled on a plantation. The memoir recounts Blixen’ s seventeen years living in Kenya, and provides a vivid snapshot of life during that period. The memoir is arguably best known for its Oscar-winning 1985 adaptation starring Meryl Streep and Robert Redford, which is honestly worth seeing for the breathtaking cinematography alone.

  • The cover of the book Facing Mount Kenya

    Facing Mount Kenya

    Jomo Kenyatta was a pivotal figure in the African Nationalism movement and eventually became Kenya’s first Prime Minister, as well as its first President. Facing Mount Kenya  is Kenyatta’s landmark anthropological study of his own Kikuyu tribe. It is a compassionate and readable study of virtually all facets of traditional Kenyan life and the structure of African society.

  • The cover of the book Running with the Kenyans

    Running with the Kenyans

    Discovering the Secrets of the Fastest People on Earth

    Kenya is home to some of the world’s greatest – and fastest – long distance runners. The Rift Valley province has become something of a mecca for runners from around the world. This fascinating book charts Finn’s journey to understanding what makes these runners special, and features an eclectic cast of characters that he encounters along the way. It’s equal parts travelogue, practical running guide, and genuinely endearing tale of self-discovery.

  • The cover of the book Dreams from My Father:

    Dreams from My Father:

    A Story of Race and Inheritance

    This startling candid memoir – particularly for some with political aspirations – was written nine years before Barack Obama’s campaign for U.S. Senate. In it, the eventual 44th President of the United States grapples with the complex legacy of the Kenyan father he barely knew, and struggles to come to terms with his identity and race. The book eventually takes Obama to the small Kenyan village of Alego, where a meeting with the African side of his family reveals the truth about his father’s life. This revelation shapes Barack Obama into one of the most inspirational and captivating political figures of his generation.