30 Best Books Based in Kenya
Brief Overview of the Good Books in Kenya
If you are looking for inspiration to travel in Kenya, there is but a healthy list of Kenyan travel novels that you cannot go wrong with. Away from the exotic and fab descriptions of the landscape of Kenya, they enumerate the history, culture, and beliefs of the people at different eras. For the more adventurous traveller, some of these Good Reads Kenya offer eccentric and exciting opportunities to reenact some of these infamous adventures. Some of the best travel notes come not from travel guides but from like-minded travellers. Most of the Good Reads Kenya are guaranteed to give you a serious case of wanderlust. This short list of 25 books – which is by no standard exhaustive, lists surpassing reads that have been written in or about Kenya in mind, and each book is considered a literary masterpiece – and they captures the essence and beauty of travelling in Kenya.
Out of Africa
Out of Africa is a classic novel by the Danish author Karen Blixen. Published in 1937, it recounts the life-events of the 17 years when Blixen made her home in Kenya, then dubbed British East Africa. The book is a lyrical meditation of her life on her coffee farm, as well as a tribute to some of the people who influenced her life. It provides a snapshot of Kenya’s colonial life in the last decades of the Empire. Blixen first wrote the book in English and then rewrote it in Danish. Out of Africa is on some occasions published under Blixen’s pen name, Isak Dinesen.
Love, Life, and Elephants: An African Love Story
In this deeply affecting memoir, Dame Daphne Sheldrick simply but heartwarmingly recounts her remarkable life and career as a conservationist and introduces the world to a different sphere of elephant conservation, which she described as the ‘human-animal’. “Sheldrick and her pioneering game warden husband David have often been ahead of science in their understanding of African wildlife.” ―The Daily Telegraph
West with the Night
A classic 1942 memoir by Beryl Markham, chronicling in detail her experiences growing up in Kenya (then British East Africa) in the early 1900’s, leading to her celebrated careers as a racehorse trainer and bush pilot. West with the Night is considered a classic outdoor literature and was listed in the U.S.A.’s Armed Services Editions soon after publication. In 2004, National Geographic ranked it number 8 of 100 best adventure books. Markham was the first person to fly the Atlantic east-west in a solo non-stop trip.
The Constant Gardener
Published in 2001, this gripping novel by British author John le Carré tells the unputdownable spiel of Justin Quayle, a British diplomat, whose activist wife is murdered. Confidence that there is something behind the murder, he seeks to uncover the truth and finds there’s a conspiracy around corrupt bureaucracy and knotty pharmaceutical money. Quayle, investigating on his own, find out that her odd murder, reportedly committed by her friend, may have had more sinister motives.
No Picnic on Mt. Kenya
Published in 1947 in Italian and in 1952 in English by the Italian writer Felice Benuzzi, No Picnic on Mount Kenya is a classic read recounting the 1943 attempt of 3 escaped Italian prisoners of war to reach the summit of Mount Kenya. Felice together with two fellow-prisoners, Dr. Giovanni (‘Giuàn’) Balletto from Genova and Vincenzo (‘Enzo’) Barsotti from Lido di Camaiore, escaped in January 1943 and ascended Mount Kenya with improvised equipment and meagre rations, two of them reaching a point on the north face of the steep Petit Gendarme at about 5000 metres.
Facing Mount Kenya
First published in 1938, by Jomo Kenyatta, Kenya’s first president, this classic book is a monograph on the life and customs of Gikuyu people of central Kenya prior to their contact with the Europeans. It is a first-hand description of a representative African culture, as an invaluable tome in the essence underlying “culture-contact” and change and as a personal account of the new outlook of progressive Africa. It illustrates the life and customs of the Gikuyu people of central Kenya prior to the 1920’s.
Speak to the Earth
Below Lake Michaelson, high above the gorges of Mt. Kenya, is the exceptional 80 ms Vivienne Falls, which is both impressive for its indelible beauty and as a relic of the ventures of Vivienne de Waterville – a British travel writer and adventurer – after whom the falls was named in the 1930’s. Vivienne arrived at the Mount Kenya National Park on 25 December 1928, aged 28, and spend the next two months at Urumandi Hut from where she explored the superb mountain highlands. “She had come there to seek solace in nature after an early life marked by epic loss”.
Published in 2014 by Yvonne A. Owuor, this novel portrays the violent history of Kenya in the second half of the 20th century. It was reviewed by The New York Times as a “dazzling novel you will find the entirety of human experience – tears, bloodshed, lust, love – in proportions.” The Washington Post said: “Owuor demonstrates an extraordinary talent and range in these pages. Her style is alternately harsh and impressionistic. One moment, she keeps us trapped within the bloodied walls of a torture cell.
Published in 1982 by British newsman James Fox, this corker is a fictionalized account of the famous unsolved murder in 1941 of Josslyn Hay, the Earl of Erroll – a British expatriate. The title is a pun on the 1932 Evelyn Waugh novel Black Mischief. Its main protagonists are the victim, Hay, the handsome and womanizing aristocrat, his beautiful married lover Lady Diana Broughton and Diana’s much older husband Sir Delves Broughton. Although the murderer (s) was never actually discovered at the time, the book claims and points to Sir Delves.
River and the Source
An epic story spanning cultures, published in 1995 by Margaret A. Ogola, The River and the Source tells the lives of three generations of women. It traces the story of Akoko in her rich traditional Luo setting, through to the children who live and die during the 20th century. The book, in its dying embers extinguishes the life of Awiti after she had buried her mother many years ago in Aluor besides Akoko. “It is an epic story that spans cultures; that is filled with tragedy, laughter and tears”.
African Bush Hunter
John A. Hunter (the avid safari guide turned dedicated wildlife warden) arrived in Kenya in the early 1900’s eager to take in the enigmatic wilder places of Africa. In this great 1952 autobiographic didactic, he recalls for the reader a collection of captivating safari memoirs and stories of early day safaris as well as of the plight of wildlife. It is a wooing epithet to understand the mind of a game hunter and imperilment of field expeditions in remotest Kenya.
Published in 2010 by Frances Osborne, this is a biography of Lady Idina Sackville who first met scandal when she left her wealthy and influential husband and two small kids for a modest penniless army officer in 1918. She married and divorced a total of five times and was christened high priestess of White Mischief among the scandalous “Happy Valley” settlers. In this gripping book, her great-granddaughter tells her story. “On Friday 25th May, 1934, a 47 woman walked into the lobby of Claridge’s Hotel to meet the nineteen-year-old son whose face she didn’t know!”
Ghost of Happy Valley
Published in 2013 by Juliet Barnes, Happy Valley recounts the mind boggling tales of the “Happy Valley Set” which was the name given to the Wanjohi Valley in the highland area of Nyandarua – where a group of affluent whites settled. While the early colonial days in Kenya have been immortalised by its agricultural pioneers like Lord Delamere, Karen Blixen, and Beryl Markham, Happy Valley became famous under influence of settlers like Lady Sackville.
One Day I Will Write About This Place
Published in 2007 by Binyavanga Wainaina, this moving book is a journey of his troubled middle-class childhood out of kilter with the world around him. Here, he takes us through his very chaotic school days, his attempt to study in South Africa, a moving family reunion in Uganda, and travels in Kenya. Recognized in 2011 as a New York Times must-read book, this brilliantly evokes the family, tribe, and nationhood in a joyous and ecstatic language. It is a top-rated and well-founded memoir.
Flame Tree of Thika
Published in 1959 by Elspeth J. Huxley who once held the office of Assistant Press Officer to the British Empire Marketing Board in 1929, she recounts – with an extraordinary gift for detail and a keen sense of humor – her child hood on the small farm at a time when the Europeans waged their fortunes on a country that was as harsh as it was beautiful. Huxley paints an unforgettable portrait of growing up among the Maasai and Kikuyu people, discovering both the beauty and the terrors of the jungle, and enduring the austere realities of pioneer life.
Zamani – A Survey of East African History
Edited by Bethwell Allan Ogot (1974), one of the most prolific historians Kenya has yet been blessed with, and the former President of the International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa (1978 to 1983), this is in-depth survey of the prehistory, settlement, cultures, geography, colonization, independence and contemporary life in East Africa.
The White Masai
This is a classic love story novel, between a European woman and a Masai warrior. She falls in love with an African warrior while on holiday in Kenya. Overcoming severe obstacles, she moves into a tiny hut with him, and spends the next four years living in his rural village. Slowly but surely, the dream starts to crumble, and she hatches a plan to return back home with her daughter, a baby born of the unique love between a white woman and a Masai man.
Running With The Kenyans
Originally published in 2013 by Adharanand Finn, this book offer insights and discoveries about the secrets of the fastest people. “Whether running is your recreation or your religion, Adharanand Finn’s incredible journey to the famous training camps of Kenya will captivate and inspire you, as he ventures to uncover the secrets of the world’s fastest people. His mesmerizing quest combines a fresh look at barefoot running, advice on the sport, and the fulfillment of a big dream: to run with his heroes.”
Green Hills of Africa
First published in 1935, this is an account of Hemingway’s month long safari in Kenya in company with his wife Pauline M. Pfeiffer in December 1933. Enumerated masterfully and with enchanting details of the landscapes and the cultures, this is a lyrical journey through beautiful Africa from a warm heart that oh-so fell in love with the place. At best, this much loved treatise is a chance to fall in love with Africa all over again.
Fortune Favours the Bold. An Africa Aviation Odyssey
D. L. Van Dyke’s long career was filled with many adventures and sometimes bedeviled by tales of trouble and war. This good read finds its role in the African air commerce, ultimately operating the initial British Airways outfit outside Europe. “The great raid on Fort Elwak, speeding Allied victory in Abyssinia by almost a year, by revealing the weaknesses in the Italian resistance, was one of the major achievement of the British East Africa (BEA) forces”.
I Dreamed of Africa
Originally published in 1991 and adapted into a screen play of the same title in 2000, I Dreamed of Africa is a heartwarming story as Kuki Gallmann’s recounts her life – filled with pain and joy, beauty and drama. Kuki first arrived in Kenya at age 25, after her painful divorce and near death accident in Italy. She set-up and settled at Ol Ari Nyiro Ranch – in Laikipia County with her second husband, Gallmann. “But Africa’s splendor came with a price”. A-must-read!
“Since its publication in 1960, when it was hailed by The New York Times as a “fascinating and remarkable book,” Born Free has stood alone in its power to move us”. Joy Adamson’s great story of a lion cub in transition between the captivity in which she (Elsa) is raised and the fearsome wild to which she is returned captures the abilities of both humans and animals to cross the seemingly unbridgeable gap between their radically non-identical worlds.
Journey Through Kenya
First published in 1993 by Amin Mohammed, Duncan Willets and Brian Tetley and told with 150+ full colour photographs, with an introduction by William Holden, it is an exciting story of Kenya’s natural beauty well told as the three capture the extraordinary atmosphere of Kenya’s famous landscapes, wildlife and cultures.
It’s Our Turn to Eat
Published in 2010, Michela Wrong’s account of how a pillar of the establishment turned to whistle-blower, and becoming in equal parts one of the most hated and admired men in Kenya; grips like a political thriller while also probing the roots of Africa’s deep woes with corruption. “It is one of those rare books that deliver more than the title suggests. This is more than a story about the whistleblower, and more than about Kenya” – The Guardian
“Those who find ugly meanings in beautiful things are corrupt without being charming. This is a fault. Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.” ― Oscar Wilde
10 Inspirational Travel Quotes
1. “Africa changes you forever, like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe the magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent, whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind, where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago?” – Brian Jackman
2. “There is something about safari life that makes you forget all your sorrows and feel as if you had drunk half a bottle of champagne – bubbling over with heartfelt gratitude for being alive.” – Karen Blixen
3. “To see ten thousand animals untamed and not branded with the symbols of human commerce is like scaling an unconquered mountain for the first time, or like finding a forest without roads or footpaths, or the blemish of an axe. You know then what you had always been told — that the world once lived and grew without adding machines and newsprint and brick-walled streets and the tyranny of clocks.” – Beryl Markham
4. Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just home.” – Beryl M.
5. “Africa – You can see a sunset and believe you have witnessed the Hand of God. You watch the slope lope of a lioness and forget to breathe. You marvel at the tripod of a giraffe bent to water. In Africa, there are iridescent blues on the wings of birds that you do not see anywhere else in nature. In Africa, in the midday heart, you can see blisters in the atmosphere. When you are in Africa, you feel primordial, rocked in the cradle of the world.” – Jodi Picoult
6. “The biggest lesson from Africa was that life’s joys come mostly from relationships and friendships, not from material things. I saw time and again how much fun Africans had with their families and friends and on the sports fields; they laughed all the time.” – Andrew Shue
7. “Throughout my life, I have never stopped to strategize about my next steps. I often just keep walking along, through whichever door opens. I have been on a journey and this journey has never stopped. When the journey is acknowledged and sustained by those I work with, they are a source of inspiration, energy and encouragement. They are the reasons I kept walking, and will keep walking, as long as my knees hold out.” – Wangari Maathai.
8. “We of the present day, who love our machines, cannot quite imagine how people in the old days could live without them. But we could not make the Athanasian Creed, or the technique of the Mass, or of a five-act tragedy, and perhaps not even of a sonnet. And if we had not found them there ready for our use, we should have had to do without them. Still we must imagine, since they have been made at all, that there was a time when the hearts of humanity cried out for those things, and when a deeply felt want was relieved when they were made.” – Karen Blixen
9. “For as long as I can remember, I have been passionately intrigued by ‘Africa,’ by the word itself, by its flora and fauna, its topographical diversity and grandeur; but above all else, by the sheer variety of the colors of its people, from tan and sepia to jet and ebony.” – Henry Louis Gates.
10. “Africa has her mysteries, and even a wise man cannot understand them. But a wise man respects them.” – Miriam Makeba