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New directions in Kenyan children's literature: individual stories as narratives of colonial invasion and decolonization.


The history of any society is simultaneously the story of that society and that of the activities of the principal actors within that society in different epochs. As the society moulds the lives and destinies of individuals within it, some of the individuals, in their own way, contribute to the molding of that society. Such then are the individuals who leave their footsteps in the sands of time (Eric Aseka, Jomo Kenyatta 2001: Blurb).

This essay examines how individual stories are used in children's literature as useful modes of telling the history of Kenya's decolonization to the young. The essay is based on the Lion's series of biographies, introduced in Kenya by the Sasa Sema Publications. These biographies' main aim is that of telling narratives of Kenya's historical figures and heroes to children. The authors of these biographies claim the desire to reinvent Kenyan history, not through a historical project but through a literary intervention for the sake of young readers. This literary intervention is realized by the way the authors fictionalize history through the use of a variety of literary styles. For example, the use of dialogue resonates in all the texts. The authors also utilize the fantastic, imagery, humour, exaggeration, illustrations and description; styles that help to illuminate these characters' lives and the themes in the stories. The fact that these books deal with historical material that may otherwise not be of interest to children has certainly influenced their format.

The discussion in this essay is limited to three texts from the series: Bildad Kaggia: Voice of the People by Evan Mwangi (2001), Jomo Kenyatta: Father of Harambee by Egara Kabaji (2002), and Jaramogi Oginga Odinga: People's Revolutionary by Ezekiel Alembi (2004). I examine the texts in terms of how the personalities contributed in building their own lives and also read the problems that affected these characters' lives as representing what happened to the Kenyan society. The persons discussed in this paper are among the pioneer nationalists in Kenya and their stories are very much located within the nationalist politics of the fifties. These characters are also among the first group of people in the Post-World War II era that gave voice to African grievances over such issues as land expropriation, forced labor, and more generally, oppression and exploitation of the African by British colonialists. Using the stories of these characters however does not mean that they are the only persons whose stories can tell anti-colonial history to Kenyan children. I am aware that using leading historical figures such as Jomo Kenyatta has a possible weakness of collapsing the complex story of Kenya into the linear story of powerful political individuals. Nevertheless these individuals are an important window through which the broader nationalist history can be gleaned. (1) In these texts children get models of greatness, and thus portraits of heroism through characters that have left footsteps in the sands of time, to use Aseka's words.

In the three texts, the motif of simple childhood is employed to mould characters that are ordinary but who later rise to become heroes in the society by the way they resist colonialism. Colonialism is thus seen in this paper as having created heroes because it is through the encounter with colonial injustices that characters rise from their ordinariness to become heroes in the society. Thus, the spaces that colonialism created not only help children to understand anti-colonial history, but these spaces also contribute in shaping these personalities' heroism. The word space is here used in the sense of the colonial institutions like schools, churches and prisons, which acted as instruments of control.

I start by looking at the representation of colonial invasion, which saw the introduction of western religion, education and the ills that accompanied this incursion, like land alienation and racial discrimination. Secondly, I look at the representation of Africans' resistance to this invasion by British colonialism, and thirdly I examine the subsequent attainment of independence. Towards the end of the paper I pay attention to the way these texts interrogate the dissatisfaction that came with independence. I contend that the inclusion of the above issues in children's books shows that the fight against colonialism in Africa in general, and in Kenya in particular, is also an important narrative to the growing minds of children.

Colonial Invasion

It will be clear in this discussion that Africans understood the ills of colonialism through the spaces of the settler farm, the school and the church, while the prison space was meant to tame dissidents. Elzbieta Sklodowska (1997) argues that space is the most frequently subordinated aspect of the narrative technique, and underestimated in critical thought. She further posits that space can be used "to bring into focus--both at the level of argument and structure--such crucial aspects of human experience as representations of nation and nationality, gender distinctions and designs of power" (114). In this paper, space is interrogated in terms of how it portrays designs of colonial power and how it is used by the three writers to narrate the history of Kenya's anti-colonial struggle to the young readers. More specifically my discussion is guided by Ezekiel Kalipeni and Paul Zeleza's understanding of space as a "physical place, historical process, social reconstruction, and an imaginative landscape" (1999: vii), because it is a definition that recognizes space as a construct of history and also as a backdrop for imagination, which is very crucial to this discussion, especially with the understanding that the texts under discussion are centered on an historical process, where colonial power was enacted in specific places. As a physical thing, space becomes important to my discussion because it combines with historicity and helps explain the deeds of the personalities under study; and these deeds are in turn read as forming Kenya's anticolonial history. (2)

The earliest contact with foreign rule in Kenya in the three texts is shown to have come in the form of settler farming and religion. In Kaggia's biography, Mwangi represents colonial invasion through the eyes of a young character, a representation that is likely to help children to identify with what is taking place because they can readily relate to a young person like them. For instance, through young Kaggia in the following extract, Mwangi introduces some of the activities that took place in the settler farm where his [Kaggia's] family lived:
   Kariuki (3) watched the labourers at Santamor Coffee
   Estate as they went about their work. He admired their
   strength. They lifted huge sacks of coffee and carried
   them into the railway carriage as if the sacks were
   weightless. They sang beautiful songs, their voices
   rising and falling in rhythm with their movement. Mostly
   they would carry a sack jointly.... "They are like ants
   carrying home a big worm for dinner," the boy observed
   quietly (1-2).

From this quotation, one notices the existence of a railway carriage, which hints at the presence of the British colonialists in the area who structured its construction. Also, the mention of coffee estates at this point in the text introduces the issue of land alienation, which became a major cause of conflict between Africans and colonialists. Similarly, in Jomo Kenyatta's biography we read: "The British government had taken the land from Kenyans and given to British farmers ... [and] announced that all the land in Kenya was to belong only to Britain" (Kabaji 2002: 38). Many people, especially in the Kenya highlands and the Rift Valley regions were forced to give out their land to settlers, and were as a result forced to work as squatters in these farms. Being a squatter meant that one's life revolved around the settler farms. Such a situation introduces the settler farm as a real physical space of oppression for the Africans. In fact, Kaggia's father lived and worked at Santamor estate as a watchman and a messenger (2) where he (Kaggia) starts schooling. Zeleza and Kalipeni (1997: 7) argue that literary texts are inextricably tied to contexts, which are themselves marked by spatial imperatives. This means that the narrative structure in literary texts is inscribed with the context of space. It is the spaces that were created by colonialists that help us to understand the drama of life for the Africans in colonial Kenya because during this time, it seems, many Africans had to work in the settler estates, first, because they had hardly any land left for their use, and second, because the government had imposed taxes. Thus people had to work to get money to pay these taxes. In her text Squatters and the Roots of Mau Mau, Tabitha Kanogo (1987) posits that colonial government in Kenya adopted a combination of financial and political measures to create the required labour supply for the settlers. She argues that attempts "to coerce Africans into seeking wage employment included imposing taxes, creating reserves, disrupting local economies and denying Africans the right to grow major commercial crops" (1). These conditions were the starting point of discrimination that was enforced by the colonialists, which extended to living quotas in major towns like Nairobi. Concerning taxation in Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, Alembi shows that some people "pulled down [some of] their huts" (2004: 22) in order to evade hut tax which was proportional to the number of huts one had constructed in his compound. It is therefore evident that the inception of colonial apparatus caused disruption of people's way of life from its very beginning.

The use of dialogue/conversation as a narrative technique in the texts under discussion is very important because it directs the reader into understanding the hardships and mistreatments that people experienced in the context of colonialism. For instance, through the reported conversation in the following quotation we learn that the settlers not only forced Africans to work in their farms, but also visited terror on anybody who failed to turn up for work:

The elders were talking about a man who had been slapped by a European because he had not gone to work.

"Do you know he hit him right in front of his wife and children!" exclaimed one of the elders.

"That is terrible," said another elder.

"People should not be forced to work on foreigners' farms," commented another.

"Tell me ...," Kariuki began, and paused to make sure that his question was being listened to. The elders looked down at the boy. "Tell me, what are you doing about the muthungu, the white man, who goes around beating people who don't want to work on his farm?"....

"Well, my son," replied one elder with an amused expression on his face, "what would you do to the muthungu?"

"I would organize everyone to chase white people out of this country," Kariuki said resolutely. "We should fight them. This is not their country." (4-5).

The conversational tone in the above quotation is a strategic style that Mwangi employs to make events accessible to the readers. In this quotation Kariuki's inquisitive nature which earned him the name Kaggia is foregrounded. Here, we also see Kaggia's dream of sending the white man away, which he maintains throughout his life. Even when he goes to school, he dreams of becoming a warrior--not to raid cattle and goats but a warrior who would "send the white people back to where they came from" (13-14). Mwangi therefore uses childhood not as a period of sheer innocence but a moment that for the likes of Kaggia is a real active subject of history, therefore showing that issues of freedom and history are also children's issues.

Having seen that the settler farm was a space characterized by exploitation and mistreatment of the native, I now examine the representation of the church/religion and the school in the three texts. The school space worked hand in hand with the church because the history of Western education in Kenya, and Africa in general, is tied to the history of missionary activities in the continent. Colonial policies, which defined the conditions under which the missionaries carried out their religious activities, shaped the operation and organization of African education. The coming of colonialists in Kenya therefore saw the incoming of missionaries and the subsequent establishment of churches and mission schools in many parts of the country. These schools were mostly established in settler farms or close to mission stations. Besides learning how to read and write at these schools, boys, who were mainly the first beneficiaries of mission schools (4) were expected to get converted to Christianity and also acquire new names. The narrator in Jaramogi Oginga Odinga (2004) identifies the emergence of Odinga's rebellious character due to the imposition of new names by the assertion that he (Odinga) was shocked "when the white administrator of the school demanded that he call himself by his Christian name, Mr. Adonijah, instead of Mr. Odinga. They objected to his African name!" (36). But Odinga opposes these demands and subsequently drops his Christian names because he saw this kind of insistence "as an insult to Africans" (Ibid). This imposition of names is echoed by Wambui Otieno in her autobiography Mau Mau's Daughter (1998), that argues that although she had been brought up as a Christian she got offended by the way colonialists disregarded African names. She writes:
   I loved and still love my name Wambui and consider it
   a beautiful name. But such was not the case with Miss
   Brownly [the class mistress]. To her our African names
   did not exist.... At roll call ... she would call out
   "Virginia Tirus" and I would get choked with anger.
   Consequently I was often punished for being rude and
   not answering to my name (29).

Another problem attached to religion was differences between the African traditional way of worship and the new Christian doctrine introduced by missionaries. In Jomo Kenyatta, this conflict is shown by the way students in Kamau's (Kenyatta's) school constantly questioned whether the new God was similar to their own African God, commonly known as Ngai among the Kikuyu community. Every time they prayed at school, young Kamau wondered what this God had done for them so that they should keep thanking him all the time (See Page 32-33). This failure to comprehend the new Christian doctrine amongst Africans is also amplified by Mwangi through young Kaggia as seen in the following excerpt:

"Sir," he [Kaggia] began, "I have a question".

The class was all ears. They knew something good was coming ...

"Well Sir," Kaggia continued, "In the book of Genesis it says that Adam and Eve were the first people on earth and that they had only two sons, Cain and Abel"

"Are you doubting that child?" the teacher asked defensively.

"No Sir. But the Bible says after Cain killed his brother, Abel, he was chased out of the Garden of Eden and went to live in the land of Nod where he married a wife and had children".

"Yes" replied the teacher. "God evicted Cain from Eden because he had killed his brother. It is all written there in Genesis. What is the problem?"

"Well Sir.... What I have been wondering is, where did Cain's wife come from? At the time of Cain's eviction from Eden, there must have been only Adam and Eve and their two sons on the whole earth. How then could Cain get a wife in the land of Nod? Either there were other people besides Adam and Eve, or it is not true that Cain married a wife when he went to live in Nod!"

The classroom was so silent that the fall of a pencil would have sounded like a thunderclap. The faces of the other pupils expressed silent admiration for Kaggia. (17-19).

I have quoted Mwangi at length here to demonstrate a number of points. First, the dialogue between the teacher and Kariuki makes the scene in the classroom accessible to the readers. Second, phrases like "[t]he classroom was so silent that the fall of a pencil would have sounded like a thunderclap" portray the tension that reigned between the teacher and pupil as the other members of the class waited for the answer. This choice of words keeps the readers alert and also aids their comprehension of issues because the readers live through the lively accounts, in this way avoiding what Mabel Segun calls "a boring recital of meaningless facts"(1992: 33), which she argues should be scraped out of children's books. Third, this scene shows the conflicting perception of the new religion among Africans. Important here is the way Mwangi persistently shows Kaggia's wish to understand the controversial issues that surrounded what they learnt at school. According to Simon Williams, "[w]e admire heroes because they embody all that we consider most admirable in ourselves" (2004: 1). In the scene quoted above, Kaggia becomes a hero in the eyes of other pupils because he voices what they probably wanted clarified about the new religion but could not bring themselves to express. This quest for Kaggia to comprehend new things sets him on the road to heroism because subsequently he does not hesitate to take the course he thought to be right. In his autobiography Kaggia laments that the Christian religion had taught Africans in Kenya that everything European, customs, clothing and food was godly, while everything African was devilish, consequently converting them [Africans] into Europeans instead of Christians (1975: 56). Thus the primary objective of Christianity was to convert Africans and infuse them with European culture. I would however want to add that in writing Kaggia's biography, Mwangi falls a victim of creation of perfect heroes because he does not show any sections of Kaggia's class who admire, or rather do not question the western religion. Such a representation is limiting because, while I do not doubt that characters like Kaggia may have behaved in such a manner, it is also important to give a balanced/realistic view of the perception of western religion in Kenya. My argument is based on the fact that from a historical point of view it is evident that some sections of the people accepted western religion without questioning its shortcomings; for example, those who became priests and nuns. It is therefore important to give children a realistic view of the situation concerning the attitudes and the different perceptions and the understanding Kenyan peoples had concerning western religion.

The theme of hard work at school is shown by the protagonists' love for work and the way they came top in class. This is more explicit in Bildad Kaggia, where Mwangi informs us that Kaggia "worked so hard and became the best pupil. He was given the name Prince of Wales which was a great honour in those days" (13). Other pupils thought he was a genius (15). The classroom space therefore challenged the characters to work hard because it became a source of admiration, which helped develop their ambitions when they were still young. However, while those students who did well at school like Kaggia earned respect, it is also true that education was used as a tool for glorification of western culture. Those pupils who performed poorly [especially in English], or failed to grasp the western concept of life, and more importantly show an admiration of these western ways were thought to be primitive and silly. In Kaggia's school the slower students were given names like warthog and other ugly names of foolish and cowardly animals (13). (5) This experience of colonial education by Kaggia has some intertextuality with Ngugi's children's books. For example in Njamba Nene na Mbathi iri Mathagu [Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus] (1986a), set in colonial Kenya, Ngugi shows that certain tactics were used in schools which influenced African children into hating African ways and their language in preference to the coloniser's. This is evident in the way the character Njamba Nene wears the plate "I AM AN ASS" for speaking in Kikuyu (his mother tongue) at school. While wearing a plate would be seen as a means of helping children to learn English, a tactic that was inherited by some schools in Kenya even after independence, Ngugi shows there was a kind of adoration for western ways by some characters, who in turn despised the African ways of life and more specifically African languages. In Njamba Nene's school for example, such mentality is exemplified by Njamba Nene's classmate John Bull, and by teacher Kigorogoru. Kigorogoru ridicules Njamba Nene:
   You can't even speak English. You are always
   speaking Gikuyu or Kiswahili, or some other
   primitive language. When will you learn to
   speak civilised languages like English, French
   or German? (2)

In contrast, Njamba Nene [which can be read as Ngugi's own claim] says, "Language is language ... no language is better than another" (2). This assertion by Njamba Nene reflects the agency Ngugi has persistently emphasized should be given to African languages in an environment where they are at a risk of getting overshadowed by prominence of foreign languages. In Decolonising the Mind (1986) Ngugi views writing in Kikuyu language as "part and parcel of the anti-imperialist struggles of Kenyan and African peoples" (28). It is important to note that all Ngugi's children's books were first written in Kikuyu language. Emphasizing the importance of writing for children in their [children's] native language, Ngugi declares: "I do not want to see Kenyan children growing up in that imperialist-imposed tradition of contempt for the tools of communication developed by their communities and their history" (Ibid). The fact however is that the school space in colonial Kenya seems to have been a demoralizing place for the African who was still battling to understand the imperialist's foreign language and education. Gcina Mhlophe speaks of a similar experience in South Africa when she argues, "our teachers made it clear to us that Afrikaans and English books were more important than books in Xhosa or grandmother's stories, that they were the key to our future" (2003:7). Such a situation presents the constant alienation that was prompted by western foreigners in colonial Africa so that the native would hate his culture.

It is within the space of the school that the problematic of racial discrimination is also explored in the three texts. This is evident in the way colonial schoolmasters preferred Africans to attain only elementary education. For example, Alembi shows that when Jaramogi Oginga wanted to go to Alliance High School, Mr. Carey Francis, the headmaster of Maseno School, discouraged him from acquiring higher education. He instead advised him to go and teach at a primary school, a piece of advice that Oginga refused to follow (28). This situation demonstrates that colonialists were prepared to offer Africans education up to a certain level. This was however met with resistance especially from those who had discovered that education would allow them to understand the white man. Discrimination in education is also seen at Kenyatta's school where we learn that education for Africans was limited to basic literacy and vocational skills. One of the schoolmasters tells the students:
   You have learned enough about reading, and now you
   will start learning how to do something useful. You
   will now learn the art of carpentry, so that you can
   make tables and chairs.... Yes ... Carpentry is
   a very useful activity. People will always need
   furniture and cabinets. And, you never know you might
   be lucky and make a chair that will be used by Her
   Majesty the Queen! [Emphasis added] (34-35).

To the schoolmaster, something useful for Africans refers, not to attaining higher education, but to concentrating on hand work. The British restricted Africans to this kind of training so that they could not acquire better jobs like higher posts in the government offices. Tabitha Kanogo (1987) reflects this situation when she posits that Africans were educated with the view to producing a certain kind of manpower, such as junior clerks, clerical personnel, artisans and technicians, to service the colonial administration. Settlers only needed semi-illiterate or semi-skilled Africans as clerks, farm overseers, masons, carpenters and fitters and thus many Africans took subordinate jobs after school. Asians were ranked below Europeans but above Africans (79). This state of affairs created unnecessary artificial barriers based on colour.

Despite the discrimination however, schooling certainly helped young Kenyans in making plans to tumble colonialists down from the dais they occupied in the colony, evident in Kenyatta's assertion that "[I]et us endure this inhumanity for the moment, ... so that we can learn their ways, and be prepared to defeat them in future" (Kabaji 2002: 36). I agree with Wunyabari Maloba (1993: 45) that no factor was as important to Africans in the development of African nationalism in Kenya as the attainment of literacy. He says:
   The organization of African protests to colonial
   policies shifted from the warriors to literate
   Africans. They understood the ways of white
   people; they spoke their language, and they were
   expected by other Africans to know how to protest
   colonial policies without arousing brutal physical
   response. In effect, literate Africans became the new
   "warriors". The missionaries' original aims in providing
   education were mainly to produce literate evangelists
   and minor functionaries for colonial state and the
   settlers--not to train nationalists. Yet one
   remarkable and unintended outcome of missionary
   education was the production of African nationalists.

In this way the school became a space that helped the colonized to understand the colonizer. It "opened" the eyes of black Africans, to see beyond their homes, where like goats in sheds, the colonialists had confined them after taking their land.

Response to Colonial Rule and the Fight for Independence

In this section I look at how children are exposed to Kenya's fight against colonialists, the hardships encountered and other technicalities that surrounded this struggle.

From the foregoing we discover that aspects like land alienation and racial discrimination, among others, which were visible within the spaces of the settler farm, the school and the church prompted Africans to rebel. One can consequently argue that the discourse of nationalism is squarely planted into children's books, because as Emmanuel Ngara has argued,
   Nationalism ... has the effect of raising the
   consciousness of subject peoples; it gradually
   opens the spiritual eyes of the oppressed so that
   they begin to see it is not right for a foreign
   power to subjugate them, and as they awaken to
   this new reality they also begin to reject the
   ideology of the ruling colonialists and to
   appreciate their own cultural values (1985:26).

In the three texts under discussion we discover that people started voicing dissatisfaction towards colonialism through various means including: formation of political parties and trade unions, expressing complaints through established African newspapers, and violent fighting through the Mau Mau.

Concerning trade unions, the narrator in Jaramogi Oginga's text informs us that Oginga encouraged people to join trade unions so that they could be self-reliant. Some of these unions, we are informed, comprised many ethnic communities, which ensured cooperation that was beyond tribal barriers. In Bildad Kaggia, Mwangi writes of an Asian named Makhan Singh, and Fred Kubai, who was half Kikuyu and half Giriama, as having "started organising all trade unions to weaken the power of the British government" (72). Such a grouping forces us to acknowledge that although there is a sense in which tribalism is evident in the current Kenyan political situation, the fight for freedom from colonialist was an effort from varied tribes and groups. The trope of the courageous and persistent nationalist is employed in the texts to demonstrate the activities of the trade unionists who never gave up even when there were threats of arrests by the British government. For example, when the British jailed Singh in 1950, Kaggia and Kubai carried on with the activities of the trade unions. The spirit of hard work and unfailing determination that Mwangi exposes in these characters allows us to read the unfailing commitment to the fight against discrimination that was adopted by freedom fighters. This kind of presentation is important to young readers who at their age are still learning to cope with various demands of life.

Publishing newspapers was equally an important tool for fighting colonialism. These papers were a tactful way of promoting the freedom struggle because through them people knew about the fight. And in cases where colonialists reacted in an extreme manner, publishing the incident would embarrass them (Mwangi 2001: 75). Fighting colonialism through paper and pen is linked to the fact that these people went to school and gained access to education, which according to Maloba (1993), produced a group of nationalists--the new warriors.

The Mau Mau movement is presented to have played a major role in resisting colonial rule, with intense fighting emanating from bases hidden in the forests. "They planned surprise attacks by popping out of the forest all of sudden ..." (Kabaji 2002: 54). The Mau Mau waged their attacks not only on police stations and farms owned by British settlers, but also on any African who supported the British because he/she was considered a traitor and an enemy as well. There are various methods through which the Mau Mau movement was organised but the oath was regarded as the most important as it ensured top secrecy of their activities.

The movement established its strength through administration of oaths. By 1952, thousands of people had taken an oath swearing unity, devotion to cause, and secrecy. People swore that they would be ready, when required, to do anything to liberate Kenya, even if it meant sacrificing their lives.... There was a solidarity which came out of the oaths, as people began to have more confidence in themselves and each other (Mwangi 2001:79-80).

This extract from Bildad Kaggia emphasizes the importance of the oath to those that believed in Mau Mau. The Mau Mau movements caused a lot of alarm on the part of the British, who declared a state of emergency, which resulted in arrests of many nationalists. Such arrests lead us to the prison space which I examine below, but first the presentation of the state of emergency in the texts:

At midnight of October 20, 1952 a state of emergency was declared. This gave the government unlimited powers to imprison anyone, and to apply any kind of law they deemed appropriate (Mwangi 2001: 82).

On 20th October 1952 the British governor of Kenya declared a state of emergency. This gave the government enormous power to imprison people (Kabaji 2002: 55-56).

In 1952, Kenyatta, Achieng' Oneko, Bildad Kaggia and several other freedom fighters were arrested and detained for many years. (Alembi 2004:51).

Repetition of episodes like these in the texts strengthens my argument that the texts address issues that cut across Kenya's history. These texts are therefore a useful way of having history compressed into children's books, which ensures easier access to this history by children. Many events cited in all the texts [like the one above] have their dates specified, thus portraying the authors' intention to be precise while at the same time projecting the texts as fictionalized history. In fact, it is through the fictionalization process that history resonates and acquires meaning and relevance to the reader. The fact that the recuperation of Kenya's [hi]story of liberation is done through literature points to literature as competing with other discourses, and sometimes supplementing these other discourses and forms of knowledge to "write" Kenya's historiography. Rewriting Kenya's history as literature is also important because it allows history to entangle with other discourses.

In the prison space, the trope of the hardened and rebellious character is demonstrated through Jomo Kenyatta and Kaggia who are jailed after the state of emergency is declared. This rebellious character is only visible by looking at the hardships and torture these characters endure, and their refusal to cooperate with the demands of the Whiteman. The following descriptions show the kind of hardships I am referring to:

When he arrived in Lokitaung, Kenyatta was beaten and forced to wade through a poisonous cattle dip, submerged entirely until it stung his eyes.... There were many harsh rules. When a prisoner broke any of these rules, he was put into a hole in the ground that was covered with steel. With no trees or shade, this hole became a hot oven in the day, and the prisoner would bake in there with no water or fresh air. Kenyatta was once kept in the hole for five days, and when he was brought out, he could not walk. He had almost died from heat and thirst (Kabaji 2002: 62-64).

Kaggia and four of his fellow freedom fighters were held in Lokitaung, ... The nights were long. There was no furniture in their room. They slept on mats on the floor. Sometimes they had no water.... In the sultry heat of the desert sun, they were forced to dig trenches over ten metres deep (Mwangi 2001: 83).

Important in the descriptions the authors utilize is that they allow the reader to visualize the level of the torture that the characters went through, and at the same time showing that they did not succumb to the demands of the authority. Even when it is rumoured that the trenches the prisoners dug were meant to be their graves, Kaggia demonstrates his determination to fight to the end when he says: "Even if we die, we shall not regret what we have done for our country.... The struggle for Kenyan independence is the sweetest thing that has ever happened here." (84). Simon Williams (2004) argues that heroes "display greater courage than regular people do, they know what they want and are fearless in achieving it" (1). This is the kind of motif that Mwangi utilises in Kaggia's biography whereby his [Kaggia's] words and resolutions are always focused on freedom; "he knows what he wants to achieve and he is fearless" in doing whatever it takes to realize it. In this context, heroism is viewed as being tied to courage, perseverance and persistence. The prison therefore becomes an important space for creating heroes. By presenting the British government's brutality against the perseverance of the Africans, the authors guide the young readers into identifying with the torture that those who fought for freedom went through.

The characters that were jailed were not the only ones who agitated for Kenya's freedom from colonialism. Alembi and Kabaji show that those nationalists like Odinga that were not jailed continued to fight outside prison, and also championed the release of the others, especially for Kenyatta who was perceived as the indisputable leader of Kenya in both colonial and postcolonial situation. Kabaji writes:
   One of the most vocal supporters of Kenyatta's
   release was another activist, Oginga Odinga. He
   coined the slogan Uhuru na Kenyatta! which was echoed
   all over the country: independence with Kenyatta....
   Baba wa taifa! Father of the nation! (2002: 66-67). (6)

Those who had gone to prison in the course of liberation struggle therefore turned out to be adored. Kenyatta especially became the hero in everyone's mouth. Songs were composed about him--denoting his heroic struggle in detention and asking for his release, as Kabaji puts it below.

All this time the people of Kenya could not forget Kenyatta and kept him close to their hearts. They clamoured for his release everyday:

Tuvute kamba twende Lodwar! Aye tuvute kamba twende Lodwar!

Let's pull together and go to Lodwar! Let's free our leader from prison! (Kabaji 2002: 65).

Speaking of the status accorded Kenyatta in the fight for independence, James Ogude argues that "local musicians sang of Mzee Kenyatta's tribulations and sacrifices in detention; his suffering was valorised and emphasized over and again ..." (2003: 276). Songs like the one I quote below by John Mwale were popular at independence, and they specifically emphasised Kenyatta's suffering and the sacrifices he made [especially by being detained] to bring independence:

Kenyatta aliteswa sana

Baba taifa Jomo Kenyatta Aliteswa siku nyinyi Kenyatta aliteswa sana,

Kwetu hapa Kenya wandugu Kumbe mateso yake, Yataleta Uhuru Kenya!

The father of the nation Jomo Kenyatta Was tortured for years Kenyatta was tortured so much, For us Kenyan people So his suffering, Brought Independence to Kenya!

(John Mwale, 1963) (7)

Although in essence songs that referred mostly to the person of Kenyatta leave out other characters that were agitating for freedom, this does not stop us from noticing that those who went to detention were seen as heroes of nationalism.

The fight against colonialism was however not easy because nationalists were faced with so many drawbacks. Sometimes things did not go as planned. Arrests of leaders of trade unions and other movements delayed the activities of these organizations. Also, African home guards who worked for British colonialists acted as spies and reported any "illegal" plans in the village to the British (Kabaji 2002: 55). Nevertheless, the transition to independence in the texts discussed here is presented as a time of great celebration. The scene at independence is made clear through vivid descriptions:

... [O]n 12 December 1963, Kenya became independent. Jomo Kenyatta became the first president. At long last their struggles had succeeded. Kenya was a free nation now (Mwangi 2001: 93).

... exactly at midnight, the lights went out and there was total darkness. For a few breathless moments, thousands of people waited in the pitch dark stadium. Then, all of a sudden, the lights came on and there was the official flag of the Republic of Kenya flying in the wind!.... Everyone cheered and roared with happiness! "Uhuru!, Uhuru!" they cried.

Brightly coloured fireworks exploded into the sky. Pow! Pam!.... There was whistling, stamping of feet and screams of joy soaring into the sky above! (Kabaji 2002: 74).

And, finally, Kenya became independent at midnight, on the 12th of December 1963. Aaaah! ... there was singing and dancing across the country that night and the following day (Alembi 2004: 54).

Because of the use of descriptive language and idiophones which conjures up an atmosphere of dance and celebration, the scenes quoted above aid the readers in visualizing the panorama at independence, and to comprehend the pleasure that followed the suffering experienced during the colonial period. In the next section, I look at how the postcolonial history is presented in the three texts.

The Post- independence Disillusionment

The biographies discussed here do not terminate their story at Kenya's independence. Instead, these texts demonstrate that the knowledge on the country's post independence politics is also crucial to the young. While in colonial times Africans had to contend with humiliation and the hurt caused by the colonial government, in the postcolonial era, there is the problem of unfulfilled dreams, due to multiple problems, which brought continued disillusionment. These problems expose young readers to the complications of postcolonial governance and thus to various facets of Kenya's history. I examine these problems below in conjunction with events that take place on the eve of independence, some of them that link to the post independence misunderstanding between the nationalists.

In Jomo Kenyatta's biography, Kabaji demonstrates that president Kenyatta's stand of allowing white settlers to remain in Kenya after independence was one of the major sources of controversy. Since this text derives part of its material from historical events, the author's point of view sometimes becomes more important precisely because it highlights the character's experiences and actions against the specific historical events taking place in the text, and subsequently guides the reader in interpreting these events within the wider society that provides the novel's setting. In addition, Kabaji utilises direct speech emanating from the character's mouth and takes the reader through the events that take place on the eve of independence, which makes it clear that white settlers in Kenya would eventually retain the land they had acquired (forcefully) from Africans. In his election speech Kenyatta declares: "Every community will retain land. Everyone, the Abaluyia, the Maasai, the Kalenjin, the Mijikenda, everyone. It will be theirs to manage" (Kabaji 2002: 70). Such a declaration conditioned Kenyans to expect their lost land back. Anxiety was however evident among the white population who not only feared losing land, but also had to contend with the idea of choosing between accepting leadership from a Blackman, or going back to their mother countries. This anxiety was specifically over the dispossession of the space they had colonized [land], which is visible in the following reported conversation:

One tall man who had a farm near Nanyuki muttered to his friend,

"Will this Kenyatta throw us off our farms?"

"Eh, if that happens I can't stay here. What would I do without my farm?" Said his companion.

"But Kenya is our home! How can we leave just like that?" The other answered (70-71).

Although Kabaji mostly adopts a third person narrative point of view in Jomo Kenyatta's biography, the use of direct speech and dialogue in certain instances like the one quoted above helps to make issues accessible to the young readers. In the above instance, we discover that contrary to the settlers' fears--and in a dramatic turn of events for the African communities --Kenyatta goes against his promise that Africans would retain their land. In another context where Kenyatta addresses the white settlers he says:

Kenya will soon be an independent country, and you are all part of it.... You may think I hate Europeans. Ido not. I only hate what colonialism did to Kenya.... We want you to stay here and farm the land. Our country needs your experience. Continue to farm your land and you will find the government will support you in your effort [emphasis added] (Kabaji 2002: 71).

And down went the hopes of African communities of getting back their land with Kenyatta's wobbly standpoint. Kabaji here shows that Kenyatta's speech bequeathed settlers land that had belonged to Africans. As a result those settlers who wished to leave got a ticket to sell out land to the rich Africans. The gong of independence therefore saw the birth of a stratified society with the rich Africans acquiring land and the poor remaining poor, an aspect that haunts Kenya up to today. Mostly the people who had fought in the forests as Mau Mau were sidelined since they were poor, having spent much of their life in the forests, while those who collaborated with the colonialists and thus aided in the process of colonizing their fellow Africans, emerged as the rich class at independence. Such people could therefore buy land to add onto other goodies they had acquired for being "good boys/girls" to the colonialists. Bethwell Ogot (2003) argues that"[t]hose who emerged to rule [Kenya] in 1963 were, in many cases, those who had betrayed the freedom fighters, a group of nascent grabbers and looters" (9). Such figures that Ogot mentions feature in Ngugi's Devil on the Cross, represented by characters like Nditika wa Nguunji who publicly dismisses the efforts that people made in the fight for independence when he says: "Let's forget the past, all the business of fighting for freedom was just a bad dream, a meaningless nightmare" (1987: 177).

The turn of events at Kenya's independence as shown in Kenyatta's biography represents a betrayal of nationalism. In Franz Fanon's words, in The Wretched of the Earth (1991: 152), the national bourgeoisie stepped into the shoes of the former European colonialist, and became the new exploiters. The end of colonialism therefore signaled the emergence into the world's stage what Nkrumah calls "the African personality" (Neil Lazarus 1990: 2) which was in many ways exploitative.

Kenyatta's position on land is strongly opposed by socialist leaning Oginga because, as Alembi shows, Oginga constantly fought for what was right, not just for himself, but for all Kenyans (21). The narrator in Oginga's biography says: "Oginga opposed the idea [of selling land to Kenyans] and argued that this land should instead be distributed free to Kenyans who did not have land. After all, this land had been taken from them in the first place" (56). Land as a space in postcolonial Kenya therefore becomes a source of controversy that breeds hatred between the political elite. The differences between Odinga and Kenyatta are amplified further when Odinga forms his own party, Kenya Peoples Union (KPU) which is joined by Achieng' Oneko (Alembi 2004: 59). But in the turmoil of postcolonial control and differences emanating from land issues and party politics, Oginga, Kaggia and others, are jailed by Kenyatta's government. The prison space that made freedom fighters heroes in colonial time therefore becomes an instrument of control in postcolonial situation. Like the colonialists' leadership before it, postcolonial leadership utilizes the prison space to tame dissidents like Odinga. Struggle heroes in colonial era become victims of the leadership machinery in postcolonial situation. And as Gikandi (1992) puts it when discussing Ngugi's Matigari, "[i]n the post-colonial situation ... the divinity of the nation has collapsed; the nation is not the manifestation of a common interest but a repressor of desires ..." (380).

Evan Mwangi also addresses the land issue and places nepotism and ethnic politics bluntly at Kenyatta's door. Mwangi shows that Kaggia unequivocally denounces the unfair land distribution facilitated by the president after independence. He refuses to cooperate with the practice of land grabbing that was evidently present at independence because while his peers were busy amassing land and other kinds of wealth fraudulently, he, like Odinga mentioned above, was against it. The fight for equal distribution of land is also the point at which we find the nationalists story meeting with that of the masses shown by the way militant nationalists like Odinga and Kaggia identify with the rights of the masses. The two are metaphors for the postcolonial nightmare and its future who saw the revolution as having been betrayed by Kenyatta; the very man who had allegedly led it to victory. Independence was therefore, in the words of Neil Lazarus a fraud. "It signified refinement of colonial system and not its abolition" (1990: 21-22). Mwangi shows that the majority of Africans who got land comprised of Kikuyu people who were mainly Kenyatta's close friends and relatives. Thus one could argue that although national figures like Kenyatta remain heroes because they fought for independence, they do so not only in the face of their flaws but also in defiance to these flaws (Segal 2000: 9).

Speaking of Kenya's situation after independence Kimani wa Njogu (1995) contends that at independence "the ruling class ... grabbed virtually anything that would lead to economic and political power, the masses of the people were betrayed and sidelined; the cause for which so many people lost their lives was forgotten" (137). Kimani reiterates that there has been little initiative by postcolonial Kenyan government to create space for the Kenyan child to know who really contributed to the creation of an independent Kenya, pointing out that Ngugi wa Thiong'o has attempted to recuperate the liberation struggle story for children through his Njamba Nene series. I argue that the Sasa Sema's Lion series is also way ahead in recuperating this narrative because the series is not limited to the Mau Mau narrative like Ngugi's series, but it accommodates various strands of the liberation narrative, which is useful for Kenya's children.

It is important to mention at this point that the authors discussed in this paper have to some extent engaged in a selective presentation of information. For instance, although Mwangi mentions Kaggia's fallout with Kenyatta, he does not go beyond attributing this fallout to land distribution problems, while Kaggia's problems with Kenyatta started in the early 1950s in the organization of Kenya African Union (KAU). According to Wunyabari Maloba, Kaggia was among the young radicals of the 1950s who were very critical of the educated Africans who were in KAU, like Kenyatta. Kaggia "clearly saw them [educated Africans] as the stumbling block on the road to freedom because of their caution and gradualism" (Maloba 1993: 59). Maloba argues that Kaggia's aim and that of fellow young radicals was to eliminate the educated Africans from KAU leadership. Kenyatta did not support radicalism. Again, further probed Kaggia's differences with Kenyatta in postcolonial Kenya can be attributed to his [Kaggia's] leaning towards communist tendencies of Oginga Odinga. Kenyatta disparaged Kaggia's tendencies and associated his poverty with his behaviour at independence when he refuses to amass property [unfairly] for himself (See Bayart 1993: 242). Kaggia died a poor man in March 2005, while those nationalists alongside whom he fought and their children continued to live in affluence. Mr Kaggia's life speaks of the neglect suffered by some of the people who sacrificed everything in the fight for independence in Kenya but achieved nothing. This low status that Kaggia was accorded by the state despite his sacrifices in the freedom struggle emanates from his stand alongside the masses, who according to Fanon, have no practical links with the ruling class (1991: 148). Independence certainly became a source of disappointment for the likes of Kaggia; a frustration caused by his failure to take part in what Bayart (1993) has dubbed "the politics of the belly"--the right of capture and distribution of property.

In addition, Mwangi fails to mention that those who revealed the Mau Mau oath and thus betrayed the secrets of movement were surreptitiously judged and punished by execution, despite having used Kaggia's autobiography as a research material (see Kaggia's Roots of Freedom page 110). One could argue that omission of such details concerning the Mau Mau is attributed to the kind of audience the text is targeted at, because children can easily get traumatized by the exposure of the alleged Mau Mau atrocities. This omission of some strands of information in the narrative illustrates how authors use history selectively in the writing process. Therefore while on the one hand this omission of information might be viewed as a shortcoming on the author's part; on the other hand, we could assume it is out of the demands of shaping a narrative because as Hayden White argues, "events are made into a history by suppression or subordination of certain of them ..." (1978b: 84). Again, memory sometimes involves deliberate forgetting, and is therefore incomplete. The past can therefore not be unraveled and understood in its completeness because, as Godwin Siundu argues, the relation between memory and amnesia is sometimes one between inclusion and exclusion, which in this case impinges on what one decides to remind or not to remind others of or remind others about about (2005: 164). Thus, forgetting, just like remembering, is something deliberate.

It is also important to note that when writing about lives, writers find that despite attempts to present a person's life as coherently as possible, there comes, in the course of writing, knowledges that jostle for space within the story of an individual. Therefore the writer is sometimes caught by the dilemma of choosing what to write. In such a situation, as James Kerr (1989: 2) argues, the writer's account depends on emphasis and repression of certain aspects. Suppression of information by writers may be influenced by variety of factors. In the case of the current discussion we might assume that the author may opt to avoid certain details in an attempt to shorten the text so that he/she does not overburden the readers. For example, explicit details on political tugs of war may be deemed unnecessary for young readers and therefore much of these details are probably cut down to avoid putting a strain on the readers' understanding of the texts. Occasionally a biographer is also influenced by what s/he admires about a subject, or sometimes by how the author wishes to represent the character to his audience/readers, which leads to a selective representation of information. Again, as Judith Campbell (1996) has argued when she writes about heroes in Soviet Union children's literature, sometimes children's literature has been seen as having to adhere to certain norms and ideologies, otherwise it will not be distributed. Therefore writers of children's fiction who wish to represent heroes do so by promoting certain characteristics of the heroes and heroines in the story as virtues, which will reap a suitable reward (1996: 32-33). In this sense then, writers cannot help to selectively choose their recollections in order to smoothen the jagged edges (Elsie CIoete 2002: 38). Furthermore, in writing history authors have to choose what is relevant to fit the need at the moment and the reason of writing, for as Daniel Aaron (1993) has argued, the storyteller, whom in this case we take as the novelist, requires just enough to quicken their imagination without suffocating under an avalanche of facts (69). In fact, Alembi confesses having resorted to selective writing in order to avoid this suffocating avalanche of facts that Aaron talks about when in the preface of Oginga Odinga: People's Revolutionary he writes:
   The late Oginga Odinga was a larger-than-life person. In
   fact he was an institution. This means our legendary hero
   had many facets in his life--a brilliant student, committed
   educator, a shrewd politician, philanthropist, talented
   businessman, committed husband and a loving father--all
   rolled in one.... I must admit it was a difficult task

   selecting what to write about his life.... I concluded
   that the most interesting line would be to look at the
   story of Oginga Odinga from the point of view
   of his being a champion of the poor (vii).

Nevertheless, one would be wrong to declare that the writers discussed in this paper have completely surrendered to amnesia. The omission of certain details can in no way be taken for a complete failure. This is because, as Joan Glazer (1997: 443) has argued, biographies are not required to relate every known fact about a subject from birth to death. A biography may instead focus on a few years of the subject's life or concentrate on particular aspects.


This paper has examined how some of the Lion books double up as individuals' stories, and as avenues for recuperating Kenya's history of decolonization for young readers. The lives of the characters discussed have been used to trace Kenya's history from the onset of colonial invasion, to the loss of land and the cruelty of colonial rule; from the struggle for independence, to the partly failed struggle to right the inequalities of the past in a postcolonial environment.

I contend that a reading of these texts forces one to acknowledge that the politics of colonial and post independence governments in Africa is inscribed in children's literature--giving a new direction to this literature. The biographies also make a statement that literature written for children can go beyond basic moralizing to speak to issues relating to history and politics. The supposition here is that while remaining deeply concerned with issues of moral behaviour, these texts do not do so through abstract ethical concepts but through identifiable personalities who have left marks on the sands of time (Aseka, 2001).


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(1) It should be noted that the story of the political elite is not the only one narrated by the Sasa Sema biographies. This series of biographies also acknowledges the contribution of other categories of people to Kenya's history; for instance, Jeevanjee who was an Indian political activist and a businessman in colonial Kenya, Dedan Kimathi, a Mau Mau freedom fighter, Mekatilili wa Menza a political heroine in the early 1900s, Mwana Kupona, a poet of the late nineteenth century, Mohammed Amin, a photojournalist, just to mention a few.

(2) The history of colonial invasion is not a new area of scholarship in Kenya because there has been extensive research done in this field, both in history and in literature. However, the point I emphasize in this paper is that the recuperation of this history through children's literature is novel in Kenyan literary studies. The authors of the biographies under discussion trace stories of their characters from childhood, through their active youthful life, to their old age, or even to their death. Through this span of life we come across these characters' endeavors in fighting colonialism and their participation in Kenya's postcolonial politics.

(3) Kaggia is represented as having been an inquisitive character in his childhood; a characteristic that earns him the name Kaggia, otherwise his real name was Kariuki. We learn about this in the text when one elder tells Kariuki: "A person who disturbs people with endless questions is nothing but a Kagia" (7). Whenever the elders saw Kariuki, we are told, they greeted him as Kagia because, they thought he asked too many questions. Children also started calling him Kagia (8). After sometime Kariuki begins to like the name and changes the spelling to "Kaggia". He used this name at school and it has survived for many years. One of the reasons why Kaggia asks questions is due to his failure to understand why colonialists mistreated Africans in their own country.

(4) Educating males was given more priority because girls were either too busy with household chores, or cultural interests forbade them to attend school. There was also a "commonly held prejudice that educated women restricted men's desires to have plural marriages" (Cora Presley 1992:100-101), because African traditions advocated plural marriages while Christianity forbade them.

(5) See also Kaggia's Roots" of Freedom (1975:11) for a reference oi1 ugly names used at school. Kaggia says these names were reflected in songs sung to parents on Sundays.

(6) See also Alembi (2004: 51) for similar information. But while in colonial Kenya Oginga stands by Kenyatta's side to agitate for his release, things change after independence as I will show later.

(7) As quoted in Ogude (2003: 276)

Colomba Kaburi Muriungi

Literature Department

Kenyatta University, Kenya.
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Title Annotation:Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature 2010ANN00
Author:Muriungi, Colomba Kaburi
Publication:Journal of African Children's and Youth Literature
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:6KENY
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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