Introduction: Changing our Minds about Africa
Coverage of Kenya and the larger African continent in global media outlets and popular literature tends to privilege stories that paint this diverse East African nation through vivid accounts of grand rural vistas filled with exotic wildlife and endemic problems such as violence and disease. Part of what Chimamanda Adichie has called the peril of a “Single Story” of Africa, these accounts promote long standing stereotypes about the world’s second largest continent that produce gripping headlines but do not portray the complete reality of Kenya’s past and present. As one Kenyan author quipped in an influential satire about popular accounts of Africa, authors tend to treat the continent “as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates. (they) Don’t get bogged down with precise descriptions.”
The following offers a brief description of Kenya and a list of useful sources to find out more. We encourage you to browse the sources below to move beyond the popular headlines and learn how to deconstruct the popular myths about Kenya and understand contemporary realities from a local perspective.
Kenya is a large country, bigger than the European nation of France and nearly the size of the U.S. State of Texas. Lying on the Equator, Kenya has a unique and varied landscape and is home to a diverse population of over 40 million. With a fast growing population speaking over 40 different languages, no one linguistic or cultural group represents a majority of the population.
Starting on the coast, the thin, tropical band along the Indian Ocean gives way to vast, semi-arid savannas that dominate 70 percent of the country and support several pastoralist populations. The Central and western regions are characterized by well-watered fertile agricultural zones which are densely populated. Cutting a swath through the center of the country is the Great Rift Valley, flanked by magnificent escarpments, volcanic massifs and the snowcapped peaks of Mount Kenya and Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest summits. To the west, the country is bounded by Lake Victoria, the source of the Nile River.
The cosmopolitan capital city of Nairobi, rising from the plateau of south-central Kenya, is the home base of our program. A city with over three million residents, Nairobi is East Africa’s regional center for trade and is one of three cities in the world to host a regional headquarters of the United Nations. Based in this vibrant and diverse city students will gain familiarity with the urban environment while also visiting many of the rural areas, where approximately 80 percent of the country’s population resides.
The programs headquarters are located in beautiful Karen, a suburb of Nairobi, where St. Lawrence owns a 5 acre gated campus. Students use the campus as a home base for the semester, but only spend about 8 weeks living here. The two faculty directors, as well as program staff, also live on campus. Students spend time during the semester traveling throughout Kenya and East Africa on various field components and through a month long independent study.
Students on the KSP are introduced to a wide variety of contemporary Kenyan issues and challenged to deconstruct these common stereotypes. From engagement with diverse cultures and environments to learning about Kenyan history, politics, economic development and popular culture the KSP facilitates a rich experiential learning atmosphere. Students interested in learning more about Kenya before they go will find the below links and sources useful in preparing their applications and as part of their orientation. These can also provide a useful starting point for students to explore ways to build upon their experiences back on campus through additional course work and/or independent research.
*Find all of the below texts at the St. Lawrence ODY Library or via Connect NY and Interlibrary Loan. Also check out the African Studies Program’s Resource Page, and the ODY Library’s Interdisciplinary African Studies guide as a way to find further sources related to Kenya.
Current Events From An African Perspective
African based media sources are some of the best ways to learn about contemporary Kenyan issues from a local perspective The two daily national newspapers The Standard, and The Daily Nation are read by a wide spectrum of Kenyan society. In fact, many alums of the program would say that Kenyans are much more “news conscious” than their average American counterpart and these papers are a great way to prepare for the current event discussions you may have in Kenya.
History, Politics and Society:
David Anderson. Histories of the hanged: the dirty war in Kenya and the End of Empire. (New York: W.W. Norton, 2005).
Daniel Branch, Kenya: between hope and despair, 1963-2011. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011).
Daniel Branch, Nic Cheeseman, Leigh Gardner (eds). Our Turn to Eat: Kenyan Politics Since 1950. (London: Lit Verlag, 2010).
Matthew Carotenuto “Deconstructing Tribe and the Politics of Ethnicity in Kenya.” (St. Lawrence Laurentian Lecture Series, November 19, 2013)
Tabitha Kanogo. African Womanhood in Colonial Kenya. (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005).
Kenneth King. Jua kali Kenya: change & development in an informal economy, 1970-95 (London: James Currey,1996).
Alamin M. Mazrui and Ibrahim Noor Shariff. The Swahili: idiom and identity of an African people. (Trenton: African World Press, 1994).
Godwin R. Murunga and Shadrack Wanjala Nasong’o (eds). Kenya: the struggle for democracy. (London, Zed, 2007).
Bethwell Ogot and William Ochieng (eds). Decolonization and Independence in Kenya (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995).
William Ochieng (ed). A Modern History of Kenya 1895-1980. (Nairobi: Evans Brothers, 1989).
W.R. Ochiengʹ and R.M. Maxon (eds). An economic history of Kenya. (Nairobi: East African Educational Publishers, 1992).
Claire Robertson and Berida Ndambuki “We only come here to struggle:” stories from Berida’s life. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000)—also has an accompanying documentary called Second Face: Berida’s Lives.
Neal Sobania. Cultures and Customs of Kenya. (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2003).
Thomas Spear and Richard Waller. Being Maasai: ethnicity and identity in East Africa. (London: James Currey, 1993).
Literature and Popular Culture.
The Kamusi Project: Billed as the internet’s “Living Swahili Dictionary” this website offers useful help in translating Swahili to English and English to Swahili.
Sidney Littlefield Kasfir. African art and the colonial encounter : inventing a global commodity. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).
Meja Mwangi. Going Down River Road. (London: Heinemann, 1976).
Wangari Maathai. Unbowed: a Memoir. (New York: Anchor Books, 2007)
*Also recommended is the biographical film of Maathai, Kenya’s 1st Nobel Prize winner, titled-Taking Root.
Mwenda Ntarangwi. East African hip hop: youth culture and globalization (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 2009) (Note- Dr. Ntarangwi is a former director of the KSP).
Margaret Ogola. The River and the Source. (Nairobi: Focus Books, 1994).
Ngugi Wa Thiongo. (Kenya’s most famous author of fiction, check out his website and browse the ODY library for a number of his novels as they are a great way to gain some cultural insight into Kenyan society)
Binyavanga Wainaina. One day I will write about this place: a memoir. (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2011).
Environment, Tourism and Conservation.
David Anderson and Richard Grove (eds). Conservation in Africa: People, Policies, and Practice. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989).
Edward M. Bruner. Culture on tour: ethnographies of travel (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 2005).
Stuart Coupe, Viv Lewis, Zadoc Ogutu, and Cathy Watson. Living with wildlife : sustainable livelihoods for park-adjacent communities in Kenya. (London: ITDG, 2002).
Kenya: atlas of our changing environment (Nairobi: United Nations Environment Program, 2009).
T.R. McClanahan and T.P. Young (eds). East African ecosystems and their conservation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
Edward Steinhart. Black poachers, white hunters: a social history of hunting in colonial Kenya. (London: James Currey, 2006).
Barbara Thomas-Slayter and Dianne Rocheleau, Gender, environment, and development in Kenya: a grassroots perspective (Boulder: Lynn Rienner, 1995).