A Guide to the Birds of East Africa: A Novel

This charming rom-com (208 pages) was published in September of 2009 by Harper Perennial. The book takes you to Kenya. Melissa read A Guide to the Birds of East Africa and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.


Bookshop.org is an online bookstore with a mission to financially support independent bookstores and give back to the book community.


A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

A Novel

Nicholas Drayson

This short, sweet rom-com set in modern Nairobi is a love letter to Kenya’s stunning natural beauty, majestic wildlife, and hundreds of bird species. Plus, romance, adventure, gentlemanly competition, and abiding friendship.

Our hero is Mr. Mali, a shy widower whose son recently died. The core of Mr. Malik’s social life is his Tuesday bird-watching excursions. They’re led by a Scottish widow named Rose — ‘red of hair and fair of skin’ — who has stolen Mr. Malik’s heart.

If he were a bird, Mr. Malik would be a chubby little finch or wren: brown, short, round, and balding. But, as the narrator of the story reminds us, ‘Passions burn as fiercely in Mr. Malik’s breast as in those of other men.’

Just as he’s mustering the courage to invite Rose to the annual Nairobi Hunt Club Ball, disaster strikes: His old school nemesis Harry arrives on the scene. Harry is a peacock. Rich and extroverted, he could generously be described as a jokester, but more accurately, is a bully. He sets his sights on Rose, too.

Rather than put Rose in the unseemly position of being publicly courted by both of them, the two men embark on a gentlemen’s bet. Whoever can spot and identify the highest number of birds in one week will win the right to invite Rose to the Ball.

For the men, the wager is a way to win their heart’s desire. For us, it’s a way to explore Kenyan scenery and wildlife.

Our sweet wren Mr. Malik looks for birds in his natural environment. With him, we get a peek at everyday life in Nairobi. His search begins in his own backyard, continues in a nearby city park, on to the mouth of a sewer, and to a typical Nairobi street ‘lined with small bonfires, piled with all the leaves that fall from the trees and other rubbish. The smell of Nairobi is the smell of small bonfires.’

Harry, the peacock, takes the opposite approach, using his wealth and influence to travel all over Kenya in search of exotic birds and other animals. With him, we visit Lake Victoria, Mt. Kenya, a rainforest, and Nairobi National Park. His bird-watching adventures read like mini-travelogues:

‘The lovely island of Lamu had exceeded… expectations. Only yards from the aircraft steps at the airport on Manda Island, they had been dive-bombed by a spur-winged plover. Pearl-breasted swallows swooped low over the grass beside the runway… a colony of yellow-backed weavers was chirping and squabbling on a large weeping bougainvillea while two pairs of dusky turtle doves cooed their sad four-note disapproval from a nearby telephone wire. From the boat on the way over to Lamu Island, they identified six species of gulls and terns, and watched an osprey speed low over the water, reach down with its talons and pluck a silver fish from just below the surface.’

Written with a hint of 19th-century style — with a narrator that sometimes comments on the action and addresses the reader — this book is a charming romp through Nairobi society. Fair warning: It will make you yearn for your own Kenyan bird-watching expedition and safari.

For not without reason is Kenya safari capital of the world. If it is elephants, lions, rhinoceroses, and hippos that you want to see, Kenya is the place to see them. The country is wildlife heaven and these days, thanks partly to Rose Mbikwa, there are whole hosts of people ready to help you enter its gates – hoteliers, game wardens, drivers, pilots, and guides. David and George were themselves just back from a short safari to the Maasai Mara, where from a hot-air balloon they had witnessed the famed migration of a million wildebeest and zebra across the plains, and when out spotlighting at night had seen a pride of lions… — Nicholas Drayson

sharing is caring!

Wanna help us spread the word? If you like this page, please share with your friends.

our mission

Strong Sense of Place is a website and podcast dedicated to literary travel and books we love. Reading good books increases empathy. Empathy is good for all of us and the amazing world we inhabit.

our patreon

Strong Sense of Place is a listener-supported podcast. If you like the work we do, you can help make it happen by joining our Patreon! That'll unlock bonus content for you, too — including Mel's secret book reviews and Dave's behind-the-scenes notes for the latest Two Truths and a Lie.

get our newsletter

Join our Substack to get our FREE newsletter with podcast updates and behind-the-scenes info join in fun chats about books and travel.

no spoilers. ever.

We'll share enough detail to help you decide if a book is for you, but we'll never ruin plot twists or give away the ending.

super-cool reading fun
reading atlas

This 30-page Reading Atlas takes you around the world with dozens of excellent books and gorgeous travel photos. Get your free copy when you subscribe to our newsletter.

get our newsletter
Sign up for our free Substack!
follow us

Content on this site is ©2024 by Smudge Publishing, unless otherwise noted. Peace be with you, person who reads the small type.