Kenyan history is incredibly complicated.
For one, powerful forces in Kenya and elsewhere have dominated the narrative of the country’s past. They’ve twisted events to serve their political purposes and ignored anything that doesn’t portray the right people in the best light.
Fortunately, times are changing. Historians and activists in Kenya are revisiting the past and revising the record into something more truthful. People traditionally blocked from publishing are telling their stories and sharing their experiences.
The selection of books you’re about to read serve as an introduction to Kenyan history, the people who have shaped it, and the stories need to be heard.
Colonial History and the Fight for Independence
Kenya did not exist until the British turned up and drew it on a map.
In doing so, they created a country out of thin air, hoping to make it the perfect colony for young, white settlers. In many ways, it was. By all accounts, settler life in Kenya was idyllic – and debaucherous. It still is.
On the other hand, Kenyans never truly accepted British dominion and repeatedly resisted the oppression and suffering essential to its success.
This dichotomy defines Kenyan colonial history.
Out of Africa, by Karen Blixen
British colonialism is incredibly romanticized in popular culture. It’s the story of rugged pioneers, adventurers, and eccentrics carving out a life on the frontiers of civilization.
Except, no. As you’ll learn from many books on this list, the truth is a lot darker, bloodier, and utterly devoid of any respectability.
But no book better epitomizes the traditional view of British settlers than Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. It’s a short, much-loved account of her brief time incompetently mismanaging a gigantic coffee plantation outside modern-day Nairobi.
Out of Africa is a fascinating insight into European settlers’ lives in Kenya, devoid of any context for why they were there, whose land they were living on, and the oppressive, racist system that allowed people like Karen Blixen to live so frivolously.
Britain’s Gulag, by Catherin Elkins
In 1952, after years of degradation, oppression, and violence, an armed rebellion broke out across Kenya, in what became known as the Mau Mau Uprising.
In response, the British establishment and racist white settlers enacted a decade-long campaign of violence and terror. Over 1 million Kenyans were locked up in concentration camps, while 100,000s more were forced into overcrowded, disease-ridden reserves.
Within the camps and reserves, the British unleashed an orgy of torture, rape, ethnic cleansing, infanticide, forced labour, and starvation. 10,000s of people were killed through murder, disease, and sometimes just for fun.
Meanwhile, the British handed out stolen land to white settlers and Kenyan loyalists, who would make up Kenya’s post-independence elite.
Britain’s Gulag is a complete history of this period. Elkins examines all the many atrocities committed by the British that would eventually inspire the Mau Mau uprising, the events that unfolded throughout, and the legacy of Britain’s response in modern-day Kenya.
It’s a gripping, horrifying, but essential read.
Post-Independence and Recent History
On December 12th, 1963, Kenya became an independent state.
In the years since, Kenya has had a difficult time. The legacy of colonialism and its violent end has cast a long shadow. The powerful have taken their cues from their former colonial masters, often governing through rampant corruption, theft, and violence.
But through it all, the Kenyan people have persevered, overcome so many obstacles, and thrived.
To understand modern-day Kenya and all its complexities, you need to understand the events that unfolded after 1963.
Unbowed: A Memoir, by Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai is one of the most beloved figures in Kenya.
Born in 1940, she came of age in a newly independent Kenya and would become the country’s fiercest activist, fighting against corruption, violence, oppression, and environmental degradation.
Maathai was the first African woman awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her decades’ long leadership. Her Green Belt Movement was revolutionary, inspiring generations of grassroots environmental activists.
In Unbowed, she tells her story – and Kenya’s – with grace, passion, and incredible humility.
History is the stories of peoples’ lives. And sometimes, the best way to understand those stories through art.
Historical novels make Kenyan history more human by putting you in the lives of those who lived through it.
The Havoc of Choice, by Wanjiru Koinange
The Havoc of Choice tells one family’s story as they get caught up in Kenya’s 2007 election and the violence that erupted after.
But the story starts long before the elections, viscerally depicting how decades of corruption and self-interest by those in power created (and exploited) the tensions and grievances that plague Keyan politics.
African History Books
To truly understand Kenyan history, you need to know the broader context of African history.
Nothing happens in isolation. The fates of African countries and peoples over the last 200 years are deeply intertwined. To understand how and why things unfolded in Kenya a certain way, you also need to look far beyond borders to events unfolding across Africa (and the globe).
The Scramble for Africa, by Thomas Pakenham
The Scramble for Africa is a terrible book.
The author – an English lord who lives in a crumbling castle in Ireland, no less – goes to great lengths to portray the British as gallant, well-meaning adventurers merely protecting their business interests.
Yes, they commit the occasional indiscretion, but that’s only after they were corrupted by too much time in the savage Dark Continent. What can you expect when one is surrounded by Africans?
Meanwhile, the other European powers are petty, untrustworthy, dishonest, or just incompetent. As for the ‘natives’? Child-like simpletons, cannibals, little more than primitive hordes in desperate need of civilizing.
However, The Scramble for Africa is unfortunately still the best account of the European Powers’ frantic, bloody conquest and carving up of Africa.
Just read it alongside less jingoistic histories of the continent, so you get a more truthful, less myopic version of events.
The State of Africa, by Martin Meredith
If you don’t feel like trawling through The Scramble for Africa’s X pages, The State of Africa’s introduction does a great job of summarising the Scramble and its implications for 20th-century African politics.
The book then effectively lays out each country’s struggle for independence, and the many obstacles they’ve faced since achieving it.
Meredith frames events within the contexts of each country’s history; how they interweave and overlap with one another; and global issues like the Cold War and post-WW2 European imperialism and rivalries.
Dead Aid, by Dambisa Moyo
Have you ever wondered why Africa is still so poor, after all the money and aid it’s been given?
Dambisa Moyo has the answers. Dead Aid is a short book (I finished it in a few days). Still, it completely dismantles the myths around international aid in Africa, lays bare the hypocrisies and ulterior motivations behind so many state-funded development programs here, and shows just how damaging they have been.
After reading Dead Aid, you’ll start to question everything you’ve been told about modern-day Africa.
Book Shops in Nairobi
Text Book Centre – This is Nairobi’s biggest bookstore chain, with branches across the city stocking a wide range of Kenyan, African, and international books.
You can find a Text Book Centre in Nairobi’s biggest shopping malls or order books from the online store. Delivery is available throughout Kenya and free within Nairobi.
Text Book Centre also sells good quality stationery, office supplies, and electronics.
Prestige Bookshop – Prestige feels more like a real bookshop: small, friendly, and full of great, thoughtfully selected books.
There are two branches in Nairobi, at the CBD and Lavington Mall. You can also order online and have a book delivered anywhere in Kenya.
What’s Your Favourite Book About Kenyan History?
Did I leave out any essential Kenyan history books from my list?
Leave a review of your favourites in the comments, and I’ll make sure I read them next.