Kenyan literature and political culture

Begin - Einde 
2017 - 2030 (lopend)



Between 1996 and 2002 I was involved in a postdoctoral project on Angola, studying the life histories of refugees living in Namibia as they recounted how political legitimacy had been framed in narrative and song, and how mobility had been a crucial factor in their past (Brinkman 1999, 2001, 2005). 

This experience led me to reconsider literature even stronger as part of society. Literature is not a separate realm to be studied as pure form only: the links between art and society are manifold. Literature functions in political ways through history and entertains all kinds of relations to the state; ranging from oral literary genres used during political meetings to state-induced bans and censorship. These relations between literature and politics also form the central theme in this project, aimed at studying the manifold links between the state and the literary in Kenya.

As the colonial state in Kenya soon realised dances, songs, narratives and other oral genres had deep political meanings, and provided ways to (de-)legitimize political power. In that light it is hardly surprising that through legislation the state sought to steer and control literary activities. This not only included bans and censorship in the colonial context (such as the bans on the mũthĩrĩgũ in the 1920s, and on pamphlets and songs related to Kenyatta and other political leaders in the 1950s), it also involved an active policy to promote certain types of literary production. Despite these attempts at regulation and control, colonial subjects continued to relate the political realm through artistic expression. Through song, dance, pamphlets and other genres, Kenya’s people commented on colonial politics and state measures.

These divergent relations between politics and literature were continued in Kenya’s postcolonial context. Proverbs were used during political meetings, songs and books were banned, performers/authors created music and literary forms to criticize or endorse political policies.


Research question

How have state and literature intersected in the Kenyan case (1920s-1980s)?

The main focus of interpretation will not be on the political-legal aspect of the relationship, but rather on the literary production and the experiences of audiences in this. As of 1989 a gradual liberalisation of the media took place in Kenya, also having consequences for the intersection between literature and the state. Therefore the period under discussion will be formed by the 1920s-1980s, but obviously the broader context will have to be taken into account.


Literature review

The relations between political culture and literary forms have received some attention in Angelique’s Haugerud publication (1995). The emphasis is on the conduct of political meetings and the manner in which ‘culture’ is mobilised for political purposes. The edition on violent conflict and nation-building in Kenya by Atieno-Odhiambo and Lonsdale (eds. 2003) is also important in that it proposes a narrative interpretation of the nation. Despite the merits of these studies, there is no specific attention to the relations between the literary and the state.

In the literature that discusses censorship in colonial and early postcolonial period, the focus is on music (see for example: Peter Muhoro Mwangi in Cloonan and Drewett (eds) 2006) and various articles in Njogu and Maupeu (eds.) 2007). Also specific cases, such as Ngũgĩ’s Kamĩrĩĩthũ’s project (eg Bjorkman 1989), have received some attention. A broad historical overview of the relations between the state and literary forms does, however, not exist in the Kenyan case. Furthermore no examples exist of state initiative in encouraging specific types of literary production: the emphasis is on bans and censorship.

Theoretically this project will be informed by Darnton’s work (2010 and 2014), but also by Jackson‘s study (2013) on narrative and violence. A further field to explore is the liteature on political myth-making (e.g. Anderson 1993; Bhabha 1990). These debates and studies are useful, but most of them reason from a political framework. In contrast, this research project will be less centred around the state, and pay more attention to the literary side of the intersection. This will involve studying literary strategies (such as encoding and metaphor), audiences‘ reactions and the view of performers/authors.



This project will involve archival work, as a thorough understanding of the state initiatives in the literary field will be necessary. Furthermore, it may be possible to cull authors’, performers’, and audiences’ reactions from the archival documents. Interviews with audiences and performers/authors are even more crucial, however, so as to understand literary strategies and reception.


Envisaged output

This project is meant to lead to a monograph, discussing the relations between the Kenyan state and the literary between the 1920s and the 1980s. It is possible that a number of articles will also be written on the basis of this project.