Self and society in Kenyan oral, written and virtual autobiographical texts

Begin - Einde 
2016 - 2022 (lopend)



Nearly all countries know a number of memoir-writings, mostly political leaders explaining their role in public life. It is also quite commonplace for authors engaged in writing literary works to publish their memoirs, diaries or autobiographies. For Kenya the number of such memoirs is relatively high, but what is unique about the Kenyan case, is the spate of autobiographical writings dealing particularly with one period in Kenya’s history, namely the Mau Mau memoirs. Starting with Mau Mau detainee by J.M. Kariuki (1963), Mau Mau memoirs saw a boom by the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, followed by the slow but steady publication of additional autobiographical accounts of the Mau Mau experience. More than thirty memoirs, diaries and autobiographies have been published over the years, some dealing with Mau Mau life in the forests, others with the experience of detention in colonial camps.

Autobiography had been a practiced genre during colonial times (Peterson 2006: 176), but the memoires meant a break in the way in which Mau Mau was represented (Clough 1997: 10). This process – the change from colonial to Mau Mau’s own representation of the events, has been discussed in Marshall Clough’s Mau Mau Memoirs (1997). The focus in Clough’s review is on the political content of the publications.

The memoirs also meant a break in Kenyan ways of writing and literary history. Before independence, Central Kenyan literary production had consisted of Gikuyu-language political and missionary publications, and a range of oral genres, related to leisure, religion, politics and various other realms. These published Mau Mau accounts of the post-independence period, mostly in English, marked a new phase in Kenya’s literary landscape. Popular in a different way from the Nairobi market literature, the memoirs at once refer to the violent past of the Mau Mau era as well as creatively imagine individual agency, making sense of new vocabularies and metaphors. In this research project I want to study the Mau Mau autobiographies as part of Kenya’s cultural history, stressing the history of genre, style, and aesthetics rather than that of the Mau Mau war and British colonialism.

In most cases autobiographical texts are strictly viewed in terms of writing. Various researchers have, however, also related autobiographical genres to oral literature (cf Hunsu 2011). This more inclusive view on autobiographical texts can also be extended to new media. On-line new ways of creating autobiographical texts are explored (Brinkman forthcoming). Such new manners of text production can be fruitfully interpreted with the following questions:


Research question

  • How do Kenyan oral, written and virtual autobiographical texts discuss self and society?
  • How can  Kenyan oral, written and virtual autobiographical texts be framed in Kenya’s literary history?


Literature review

As indicated, only limited attention has been given to Kenyan autobiographical texts. Although the Mau Mau memoirs have drawn some attention (Olney 1973, Clough 1997), they have been largely interpreted as sources for historical reconstruction. The debate between Ochieng and Okoth in Ufahamu (1985) may be helpful as can be the overview of autobiographical writing by Cristiana Pugliese (1986). Yet, to view these autobiographies as part of Kenya’s literary history is a research direction as yet not undertaken. Furthermore my proposal to open up the idea of autobiographical texts to include oral texts and on-line publications also is a novel route in the Kenyan case. For other African contexts some work on this has been done on oral autobiographical texts (cf Hunsu 2011) and the seminal work of Karin Barber (2006) relates autobiographical notions to everyday text productions such as letters and popular literature. On the whole, however, the Kenyan autobiographical text production warrants a lot more attention than it until now has been given.



This project will consist mainly of literary study and web research. Some interviewing may be necessary to include more information on oral autobiographical text production, but the main methods will stem from literary sociology (Fussell 2011).


Envisaged output

The research results will be published in peer-reviewed journals of international scope. The first initiatives are underway with as preliminary titles: ‘Social diary and news production: audience and identity in social media during elections in Kenya (2007)’, and ‘Representing performance. Memories of song, music and dance in the autobiographical writing of Ngũgĩ and Wainaina’.