The best books with insights into Kenya

Why am I passionate about this?

EM Forster said, "Only Connect." That has inspired my life and work. The Oxford Times published my Oxtopian castaway series, and those life stories were turned into three books. The castaways, with links to Oxford, were from five continents. One of those castaways was Kenyan-born Nancy Mudenyo Hunt. Nancy founded the Nasio Trust, which has transformed the lives of hundreds of disadvantaged young people in West Kenya and Oxfordshire. With friends, I’m currently fundraising to build the first community library in West Kenya. Nancy asked if we could write a book together, and we did. We wrote a novel inspired by her life.


I wrote...

Not so Black and White

By Sylvia Vetta, Nancy Mudenyo Hunt,

Book cover of Not so Black and White

What is my book about?

Our novel is inspired by the life of Nancy Mudenyo Hunt. It mirrors the struggles of being a girl desperate for an education in West Kenya, of a mixed relationship in London, knife crime, and racist abuse in the UK.

Precious Mukosi is unbowed and determined to change things for the better. It is essentially a story of hope reflecting the way the Nasio Trust, founded by Nancy, has been able to transform lives and create ambition in disadvantaged children in West Kenya and the UK. The illustrator, Korky Paul, describes it as ‘a powerful love story between a not-so black lady, Precious, and a not-so white gentleman, Adrian, played out against a sharply described backdrop of racist bigotry, changing society and outdated, cruel traditions.’

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Britain's Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

I appreciate books that help me understand the world and how we got here. Professor of History at Harvard, Caroline Elkins, spent seven years researching Britain’s Gulag. The UK is justly proud of standing up to Hitler’s fascism, but we need to look dispassionately at the history of the British Empire. Kenyan soldiers fought alongside British armed forces in WW2, but their reward was not medals.

The Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in the fifties was a massive armed rebellion by the Kikuyu people, demanding the return of their land and freedom. The response of Britain's colonial government was to detain nearly the entire Kikuyu population of one-and-a-half-million - to hold them in camps or confine them in villages ringed with barbed wire - to treat and portray them, including ex-British soldiers, as sub-human savages.  

By Caroline Elkins,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Britain's Gulag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Only a few years after Britain defeated fascism came the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya - a mass armed rebellion by the Kikuyu people, demanding the return of their land and freedom. The draconian response of Britain's colonial government was to detain nearly the entire Kikuyu population of 1.5 million and to portray them as sub-human savages. Detainees in their thousands - possibly a hundred thousand or more - died from exhaustion, disease, starvation and systemic physical brutality. For decades these events remained untold.

Caroline Elkins conducted years of research to piece together this story, unearthing reams of documents and…


Book cover of Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

Barack Obama’s father was part of the story of Kenya’s road to freedom, and yet his son, Barrack, hardly knew him. His father met Barack’s mother while on a scholarship to the USA but abandoned her and his son when he returned to Kenya in 1964 and became a senior economist in the Kenyan Ministry of Finance.

We researched his life when writing our book. My co-author, Nancy Mudenyo Hunt, is also of Luo ancestry. Her father attended Obama’s funeral. This memoir is a testimony to the struggle of children of mixed heritage to decide on their identity. I find it sad that the young Obama is identified by the father who left him and not by his mother who cherished him.

By Barack Obama,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Dreams from My Father as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

#1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • ONE OF ESSENCE’S 50 MOST IMPACTFUL BLACK BOOKS OF THE PAST 50 YEARS

In this iconic memoir of his early days, Barack Obama “guides us straight to the intersection of the most serious questions of identity, class, and race” (The Washington Post Book World).
 
“Quite extraordinary.”—Toni Morrison 
 
In this lyrical, unsentimental, and compelling memoir, the son of a black African father and a white American mother searches for a workable meaning to his life as a black American. It begins in New York, where Barack Obama learns that his father—a figure he knows more…


Book cover of Unbowed: A Memoir

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

In the 1970s, Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, an environmental non-governmental organization focused on tree planting, environmental conservation, and women's rights. She became the first African woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for “her contribution to sustainable development, democracy, and peace.”

That sounds straightforward if remarkable, but it doesn’t reflect the courage she needed to achieve it. Her work was often considered both unwelcome and subversive in her own country, where her outspokenness constituted stepping far outside traditional gender roles—a situation Nancy understands all too well, having grown up in West Kenya. Unbowed is Wangari’s story in her own words.

By Wangari Maathai,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Unbowed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NOBEL PRIZE WINNER • A remarkable memoir of courage, faith, and the power of persistence about one woman's extraodinary journey from her childhood in rural Kenya to the world stage.  

“[Maathai’s] story provides uplifting proof of the power of perseverance—and of the power of principled, passionate people to change their countries and inspire the world.”  —The Washington Post

In Unbowed, Nobel Prize winner Wangari Maathai recounts her extraordinary life. When Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, she began a vital poor people’s environmental movement, focused on the empowerment of women, that soon spread across Africa. Persevering through run-ins…


Book cover of Cosmic Cats

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

Feel the force of fifty children’s voices and celebrate how art and story-telling unite young people who live continents apart. At age seven, I discovered libraries and a love of reading and writing, but the idea that a working-class girl from Luton could become an author was as crazy as eating the straw boater with which my birthplace was associated.

Middle-class parents can afford to buy books for their children. Lack of access to books for children without them is a handicap for upward mobility. That is why the Nasio Trust wants to build the first community library in West Kenya, and Cosmic Cats will be the first book in the library to show the children that they belong there. In our imaginations, we are all equal. BBC South recorded the launch, bringing together the two schools.

By Various,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Cosmic Cats as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 5, 6, 7, and 8.

What is this book about?

Feel the force of fifty children's voices. Recognise the bravery of turning an empty page into a living story and celebrate how art and story-telling brings together young people who live continents apart.


Cosmic Cats connects Mumias Township Primary School (Kenya) and St Swithuns CE Primary School (England).


Book cover of The White Masai

Sylvia Vetta Why did I love this book?

On a trip through Africa, Nancy stumbled upon this captivating book by Corinne Hofmann in a Tanzanian airport shop. Intrigued, she bought it and couldn’t put it down! It's an autobiographical story of Hofmann's life in Kenya, where she fell in love with and married a Maasai warrior.

This book resonated deeply with Nancy and me because we are both in mixed relationships. Nancy once followed a Maasai friend to their village, a land unlike any other. Living in a traditional hut and being the only educated person, especially a girl, was inspiring. Those were truly unforgettable moments. The right to education is one many African girls have to fight for. 

By Corinne Hofmann,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The White Masai as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The runaway international bestseller is now an American must-read for lovers of adventure, travel writing, and romance. Corinne Hofmann tells how she falls in love with an African warrior while on holiday in Kenya. After overcoming severe obstacles, she moves into a tiny hut with him and his mother, and spends four years in his Kenyan village. Slowly but surely, the dream starts to crumble, and she hatches a plan to return home with her daughter, a baby born of the seemingly indestructible love between a white European woman and a Masai. Compulsively readable, The White Masai is at once…


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Book cover of This Animal Body

Meredith Walters

New book alert!

What is my book about?

Neuroscience PhD student Frankie Conner has finally gotten her life together—she’s determined to discover the cause of her depression and find a cure for herself and everyone like her. But the first day of her program, she meets a group of talking animals who have an urgent message they refuse to share. And while the animals may not have Frankie’s exalted human brain, they know things she doesn’t, like what happened before she was adopted.

To prove she’s sane, Frankie investigates her forgotten past and conducts clandestine experiments. But just when she uncovers the truth, she has to make an impossible choice: betray the animals she’s fallen in love with—or give up her last chance at success and everything she thought she knew.

By Meredith Walters,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked This Animal Body as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Frankie Conner, first-year graduate student at UC Berkeley, is finally getting her life together. After multiple failures and several false starts, she's found her calling: become a neuroscientist, discover the cause of her depression and anxiety, and hopefully find a cure for herself and everyone like her.

But her first day of the program, Frankie meets a mysterious group of talking animals who claim to have an urgent message for her. The problem is, they're not willing to share it. Not yet. Not until she's ready.

While Frankie's new friends may not have her highly evolved, state-of-the-art, exalted human brain,…


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