SSoP Podcast Episode 54 — Kenya: Hurrying Has No Blessing

SSoP Podcast Episode 54 — Kenya: Hurrying Has No Blessing

Monday, 12 June, 2023

This is a transcription of Kenya: Hurrying Has No Blessing.

David: Hello. Welcome to Strong Sense of Place.

Melissa: In each episode, we focus on one destination and discuss what makes it different than any other place on earth.

David: Then we recommend five books we love that took us there on the page.

Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan.

David: I’m David Humphreys.

David: We’re going around the world one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.

[cheerful music]

David: Welcome to Strong Sense of Place. Today we get curious about Kenya. In Two Truths and a Lie, I’m going to tell you a story about a creature who is half-man, half-beast, half-country-music-legend. Then we’ll talk about five books we love.

Melissa: I’m recommending a sweet rom-com told from the male point-of-view and set in the world of Kenyan bird watching.

David: I’ve got a book that made Ernest Hemmingway jealous. But first, Mel’s going to bring us up to speed with the Kenya 101.

Melissa: Kenya is located in East Africa, about halfway down the continent, with a coast on the Indian Ocean. As you move inland from the east coast, the land rises into plateaus and mountains. The capital city of Nairobi sits in those highlands.

Melissa: The photos of Nairobi’s skyline are about what you’d expect. Highrise buildings with lots of windows. Traffic in the streets. National Geographic calls it a ‘blossoming capital’ with experimental chefs, edgy art galleries, a lively bar scene, and ecologically-minded boutiques. As an urban environment, it has all the stuff you want in your city experience. But let me lay this on you.

Melissa: Nairobi is also the only city in the world that includes a national park. The photos are wild. Literally. There are gray skyscrapers in the background and then oh! look, a giraffe! in the foreground. Nairobi National Park is home to black rhinos, lions, leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, buffaloes, and about 400 kinds of birds. There are hiking trails, picnic sites, and camping all within the city limits. I love the idea that you could have a nice breakfast — maybe some rice coconut pancakes called vibibi — then take a 15-minute drive and hang out with a zebra.

Melissa: The stunning nature doesn’t stop there. If you go out the other side of Nairobi, toward the west, you get to the Great Rift Valley. That’s a trench that cracks the Earth open from Syria to East Africa. It’s a pressure valve, letting out energy in the form of hot springs, geysers, volcanoes, and earthquakes. It’s very dramatic, and also very beautiful. If you picture a Kenyan safaris, you might think of scrubby brown savannah. But along the Great Rift Valley, there are big, buff-colored rock formations and deep green hills and bright blue lakes dotted with with hot pink flamingoes.

Melissa: Before we get into the other fantastic things to see and do in Kenya, I want to take a brief tour of history for context. For our purposes, modern Kenyan history is basically two big buckets: Before colonialism and after.

Melissa: Before colonialism, Kenya was populated by dozens of indigenous tribes. Its coast was part of the Indian Ocean trading route. That brought Arab traders, along with influences from the Middle East, Persia, and India. All of that was thrown into a melting pot with African customs. So languages merged, Islam took root, people intermarried. All of that led to the growth of Swahili culture.

Melissa: Then in the 1880s, the British showed up. By 1920, Kenya was officially a British colony. After WWII, Kenyans had enough. There were multiple uprisings and in 1963, the independent Republic of Kenya was born. But that didn’t solve everything. There was and still is government corruption and tension among different ethnic groups.

Melissa: Now seems like a good time to mention that there are 68 different languages spoken in Kenya. The two official languages are British English, and Swahili. As we saw in Jamaica, the official languages are used for formal conversations and school, but with friends and family, people speak their mother tongue or Kenyan English.

Melissa: Now let’s talk about the reasons to visit Kenya. This quote is from a book I’ll be recommending later. I love it for setting the scene: ‘Where else can you find a snow-capped mountain of such magnificence as our own Mount Kenya, and a coast of palm-lined beaches? What other country has deserts and forests, lakes and rivers, hills and plains like ours? Where else are the men so handsome and the women so beautiful? And where else… can you see so many birds? Not only birds… Lions, elephants. Cheetahs, giraffes. Impala. Gazelle. Warthogs. Bush pigs. Wildebeest. It is true… We are blessed. It is a fine country that we live in.’

Melissa: So, all of that is waiting for you in Kenya. But before you head out in a jeep on a safari, you might want to visit the coastal city of Mombasa. The best way to get there is the Madaraka Express train from Nairobi. It passes through two national parks so you might see animals along the way!

Melissa: If you’re into the whole vibe of the old market scenes in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, you will love Mombasa. The food, culture, and architecture of the city blends all the influences of that Indian Ocean trade I mentioned earlier. The Old Town is a warren of narrow streets and pastel-colored buildings with Moorish arches, orange tile roofs, and ornate balconies. At the entrance to a wide avenue, there’s an archway gate made from two pairs of enormous aluminum elephant tusks. On a point overlooking the coast is Fort Jesus, a boxy, sand-colored military fort built by the Portuguese in the 16th century.

Melissa: You can also laze on the soft beaches and splash in the Indian Ocean. There are very romantic wooden boats with white sails called dhow, and you can take a sunset cruise to the nearby island of Zanzibar.

Melissa: The largest ethnic group in Kenya is the Gĩkũyũ people — their population is about 7 million. There’s also the El Molo tribe of about 500 people. They live on the shore of Lake Turkana in the Rift Valley.

Melissa: You might also have heard of the Maasai. And if you don’t know the name, I bet you would recognize a photo. They’re the tall, lithe, nomadic people who wear those distinctive red cloth robes and always seem to be smiling in photos. That red fabric is called Shuka, and it symbolizes courage and strength. They also wear layers of colorful beaded necklaces that change throughout time to represent their age, social status, marital status, and more.

Melissa: There are well-known tours you can take to visit the Maasai. With the participation of the tribes, organizations have set up land conservancies to protect the Maasai tradition of living off the land — while also conserving wildlife and the ecosystem. The land is leased to conservation groups and tour operators, and in exchange, the Maasai can continue with their traditional herding practices while also getting services like clean water, healthcare, and schools.

Melissa: So you can go meet the people of a village with a Maasai as your guide. They explain the Maasai people’s deep knowledge of the land, traditional medicines, how they make fires — and you get to see how they’ve lived for hundreds of years. Oddly, they also have cell phones and Facebook pages. Many young tribe members go to college, then return to the villages to live a more traditional lifestyle.

Melissa: Finally, we need to talk about food just a little. I will being with this statement from Lonely Planet: ‘Make the best of starch and gravy.’ I could not be more in. Kenyan cuisine is built around fresh seafood, grilled meat, and lots of lovely starchy things like cassava, sweet potato, pumpkin, taro root, beans, and ugali — that’s a sort of firm, savory porridge made from cornmeal. It all sounds like amazing comfort food.

Melissa: So there you have it. Fly to Nairobi and take the train to Mombasa. Meet the Maasai, go on safari to see the Big Five animals, and fill your belly with starches. Sounds pretty good to me. That’s the Kenya 101.

David: Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?

Melissa: I am!

David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. One of them is not. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here are the three statements. Jimmie Rodgers was a musician in the US who rose to fame in the 1920s. He’s been called ‘the father of country music.’ He’s best known for his yodeling. Here’s what that sounds like. [Jimmy Rodgers song]. So, here’s statement one: A Kenyan tribe used to think that country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers was a mythical half-man, half beast.

David: Statement two: There is a tribe of super-athletes in Kenya. And statement three: There’s a hotel in Kenya where you can feed the giraffes from your breakfast table.

Melissa: I want all of those to be true.

David: One at a time. First, A Kenyan tribe used to think that country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers was a mythical half-man, half beast.

Melissa: True!

David: That is a lie, although it’s shrouded in some truth. Here’s the story. It starts with a English ethnomusicologist. His name was Hugh Tracey. Hugh and his wife used to travel through Africa from the 1920s to the 70s, collecting the music of the African people. They would pull into a village with a reel-to-reel tape machine and record the music there. He would eventually publish over 200 LPs of his recordings. A writer at the New Yorker would later describe his work this way: “The kind of impulse that Tracey felt is equal parts imperious and visionary.”

David: One day, sometime in the 50s, Tracey and his wife get to a village and start talking with the locals. They’ve got a series of songs they call “Chemirocha.” He records those songs. Here’s one of them. – The girls here are singing about dancing so hard your pants fall off.

David: And then, when he’s talking to them about the songs, he realizes that they have previously heard the music of Jimmie Rodgers. Here’s what Jimmie Rodgers sounds like –

David: And the ethnomusicologist believes this is their interpretation of his style. And the locals describe him — Jimmie Rodgers — as a half-man, half-beast, this Chemirocha. Tracey hears that, and spreads the story around. These Kenyans believe that Jimmie Rodgers is a faun of some kind.

David: Time passes. Tracey founds the International Library of African Music. It is — to this day — the largest archive of African music south of the Sahara. He made his recordings available to everyone, and, in 1977, he died.

David: Many years later — in the early 2000s — the woman who is then running the International Library of African Music. She realizes that the musicians have never heard the recordings. says, “We should return the music to the people who recorded it.” Eventually, they find the man who organized the singers for Tracey back in the 50s. He’s an old man now. They ask him about the recordings. And they learn two things. First, ‘chemirocha’ meant many things. It could mean anything strange and new. There was also a group of songs called chemirocha that were slow and nice. But they also knew of Jimmie Rodgers, the man.

David: And when they asked him about the ‘half-beast’ part, the old man said yeah, they thought ‘chemirocha’ was half-beast, because they thought all white people were half-beast. They ate food that looked like worms — white rice — and they preached about eating Christ’s body and blood. Plus they used to gather blood from the locals for the war effort. So the tribe made some assumptions about the white people being at least part animal. I can’t help but think that Jimmie Rodgers would have gotten a kick out of that whole thing.

David: That means statement two is true. Kenyans have been a dominating force in long-distance running for the last thirty years or so. To give you some context, the record for the fastest marathon has been broken nine times since the turn of the century. Each one is faster than the last. Six of those records — and five of the last five — are from Kenyans. Statistically, that’s an absurd tilt. There are only about 50 million Kenyans. There are 8 billion people. So how are all those great runners coming from just one country? And it’s not just marathons. It’s everything from 800 meters up.

David: A whole lot of that talent comes from one large tribe. The Kalenjin tribe is five million strong. And, according to an article from the Guardian, they hold 40% of the world’s distance running records. The world’s greatest male marathoner? Kalenjin. The world’s greatest female marathoner? Kalenjin. Mathematically, it would be as if most of the record-holding US runners are from a six-block area in Chicago.

David: Nobody really knows why — and it’s undoubtedly a combination of things. Many Kalenjin have an excellent physique for running — thin legs, small, good circulation. Many of them live at altitude. Some of them ran to school every day, sometimes up to 10k. There is also cultural inertia. This is a thing we do well, so we’re going to do that thing.

David: One of the Kalenjin that I wanted to mention is a man named Julius Yego. He is not a runner. He’s a javelin thrower. In 2016, he won a silver medal at the Olympics. He learned how to throw the javelin and train by watching YouTube videos.

David: And statement three is true. There’s a hotel in a suburb of Nairobi called Giraffe Manor. It’s modeled on a Scottish hunting lodge. It’s a 12-bedroom manor, all decked out in furniture from the 1930s. One of those bedrooms is furnished with the belongings of Karen Blixen, better known in the US by her pen name Isak Dinesen. She wrote ‘Out of Africa.’ And ‘Babette’s Feast.’

David: There’s a tribe of giraffes that live on the land there. And they show up. They stick their head through the doors and windows for a little something in the morning. Guests can feed the giraffes from their breakfast table, through the front door, or from the 2nd story bedroom window. You could have waffles with a giraffe. It looks charming.

David: The rooms are a little spendy. I clicked around a bit and they were going for a little over two thousand dollars a night. If you want to see Kenya for a whole lot less, you can. I looked up airfare – which was around $1000 round-trip to Nairobi from here or New York or LA, if you plan in advance. A nice-looking hotel is about $200 a night. And then you could take day-trips with different tours. Spend a day touring a Masai village, pedal a bike tour of a national park, or take a Jeep around Lake Naivasha. All of those start around $120 for the day. As far as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to see some fantastic things you’ll never forget, it’s almost cheap. Tripadvisor and Google Travel have all the information you’d need.

David: That’s Two Truths and a Lie. Are you ready to talk about books?

Melissa: Yes! And I’m starting with a heavy hitter. My first recommendation is Dust by Yvonne Owuor. This is a dreamlike exploration of grief and idealism set against the backdrop of Kenyan modern history. It tells the story of one family to reveal the larger story of life in Kenya.

Melissa: The book opens with a prologue, and you’re thrust right into an action scene. This is the most straight-forward part of the book.

Melissa: A young man named Odidi is literally running for his life, when he’s shot down in an alley in Nairobi. As he lies dying, his last thoughts are of his sister Ajany and snapshots of his personal history. He remembers a beating from his father, rescuing his baby sister from vultures, a scary excursion into a cave, and what it was like to attend an English-style boarding school. There are two big takeaways from the prologue: The most important person in his life was his sister Ajany, and life in Kenya is difficult.

Melissa: Then the story proper begins, and it plays off all the little hints and pieces of history that are laid out in the prologue. I want to read you a snippet from Odidi’s funeral so you can get a sense of Owuor OO-war’s writing style. To me, it’s like an impressionist painting, dabs of words and thoughts. This also gives you the view from inside the character Ajany’s head:

Melissa: ‘Ajany scrubs her face and stares at two sides of the world. Before-now was four hours and forty-three minutes ago. Rained-upon earth mingling with smoke and age and dust and sun and cows on a father’s coat, and her head tucked into its folds in welcome at the airport, the scent of coming home from all her Far Aways. But-now is icy eternity, thick with the terror of the voicelessness of her big brother. But-now is made of the murmured anguish of other strangers — a ragged quartet oozing old-clothes smell. Wet eyes, life-hardened faces, as unadorned as the ill-nailed empty coffin on the cement… Ajany looks away from these other citizens of the sea of absence.’

Melissa: So we meet Odidi’s family, including blood relatives — his mother, father, an uncle — and also lifelong friends that are like family. There’s also a mysterious British man and his son who have important ties to the family — but THAT is all shrouded in secrets. Even as kids, Ajany and Odidi couldn’t get their parents to open up about it.

Melissa: As Ajany mourns her brother, two mysteries are slowly being resolved: who killed Odidi and why — and who is this Brit that keeps popping up in the family history.

Melissa: The way these mysteries are revealed is not through investigation. We learn the truth of everything through characters’ thoughts, snapshots of memory, and conversations that are rich with subtext.

Melissa: This book demands your full attention. That’s one of the things I enjoyed about it, but it won’t be for everyone. There are no passages of exposition that overtly explain the politics or history or the characters’ complex emotional reactions.

Melissa: The author puts a lot of trust in the reader to follow her lead. I did Google a few names of Kenyan political leaders and a few dates, but it’s not necessary. You can just exist in this world without needing to connect it to the real historical events because it all makes internal, emotional sense.

Melissa: I think that’s the power of this book. It’s narrative drive comes from emotion. There is ACTION — the whole story is grief made manifest in action. There are devastating flash floods and physical, knock-down drag-out fights. There are gun battles and weaponized sex, tender moments and frenetic dancing. And it’s clear that those are the outward expressions of overwhelming things INSIDE.

Melissa: All of the characters — even the ones who only show up for a scene or two — are simultaneously on the run FROM something and yearning FOR something. That gives the story a propulsive energy, even when all that’s happening is a late-night conversation.

Melissa: It also has a very strong sense of place. There are rich descriptions of scenery and weather and wildlife. I looked at many photos of marabou storks and ghost scorpions and something called the go-away-bird. The descriptions are visually specific and brutal — but it’s unromantic. These people are not on a safari vacation. They’re living in this dry, dusty land that’s sometimes viciously swept clean by floods, where the birds make it clear that this is their home and people are temporary.

Melissa: I found this book challenging and beautiful, sad and unsettling. But also with enough hope to make it worthwhile. In an interview, the author said that Kenya is the the place she loves and the place that makes her the most furious. That makes a lot of sense. It’s Dust by by Yvonne Owuor.

David: My first book is West with the Night by Beryl Markham. This was a recommendation from one of our listenersL Kate from Ohio. Thanks, Kate!

David: I’m going to tell you about Beryl Markham. She’s going to sound like a fictional character. She’s not. She’s a real person. But it’s going to sound like she’s an overwritten adventure character. Like an old lover of Indiana Jones that he somehow has to reconcile with before they fetch the Jar of Souls from the haunted temple in the jungle. But, as far as I can tell, she really existed.

David: Beryl Markham was born in England, and moved to Africa with her family in the early 1900s, when she was about four. Her dad bought a horse farm there. Beryl had pale skin and curly blonde hair, and was probably adorable as a child. She enjoyed playing with the local boys and they introduced her to running barefoot and spear-hunting. Beryl made friends with a Kenyan boy named Kibii. With him, she learned to jump as high as her head – because the local tribal leader believed that a man who couldn’t jump as high as his head wasn’t any good. She also learned how to speak three different African languages.

David: When she was a kid, she survived an attack by a lion. At some point, her mom left Africa because she hated all of it. And Beryl and her dad were left to run the horse farm. We’re just getting warmed up with Beryl. At eighteen, her father left for Peru. He did not take Beryl. Before he left, he sold Beryl off in marriage to the neighbor. While married, she became Africa’s — and maybe the world’s — first professional female racehorse trainer. She soon divorced her husband. And then she learned how to fly.

David: In her 20s, she was the only woman working as a licensed pilot in all of Africa. She delivered mail, brought medicine to villages, and she helped scout for elephant hunters. This is what she was doing when she met Prince Henry, the third son of King George V. Henry’s brother Edward would later abdicate the throne. She moved to London for a time, and, according to some stories, ran barefoot in Buckingham Palace. Her relationship with Henry got so burdensome to the throne that Beryl was given a small lifetime stipend on the condition that she leave England immediately and never return.

David: On not much more than a dare, Beryl became the first person, male or female, to fly solo west across the Atlantic. Flying west is more challenging, because the wind is in your face. On 4 September 1936, she took off from Abingdon, in the south of England. … She took some chicken sandwiches and some homemade trail mix, plus a few flasks of tea and coffee, and just a little brandy.

David: She flew what sounded like a fairly miserable 20-hour flight, mainly in the dark. Her plane had fuel problems due to icing, and she crash-landed in a swamp in Nova Scotia. When she was landing, her head smacked the window shield. She felt she had failed, because she had intended to get to New York. But the rest of the world did not feel that way. She was given a motorcade through New York City. She waved to the crowds with a bandage rakishly plastered across her forehead.

David: From there, she moved to California, where she worked as an advisor on movies. And she wrote a book. She wrote ‘West with the Night.’ ‘West with the Night’ came out in 1942, to solid reviews —but a lot was going on in 1942. It went out of print. And the book was mostly forgotten for the next forty years. Until, in the 1980s, a well-connected restauranteur in Sausalito read about the book. The restauranteur read about it because he was flipping through Ernest Hemmingway’s letters. And Hemmingway mentioned the book.

David: So. Let’s stop and think about all the stuff we know about Beryl so far. She can jump as high as her head. She was attacked by a lion. She could fly. She was beautiful and brave. And, it turns out, she could write. Here’s what Hemmingway said about ‘West with the Night: ‘Did you read Beryl Markham’s book, West with the Night? …She has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. I felt that I was simply a carpenter with words, picking up whatever was furnished on the job and nailing them together and sometimes making an okay pig pen. But this girl, who is to my knowledge very unpleasant and we might even say a high-grade bitch, can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves as writers … it really is a bloody wonderful book.’

David: West with the Night was republished in the 80s. It spent about a year on the New York Times bestseller list. The book retells her adventures growing up, and ends with her crossing the Atlantic. Markham is a brilliant travel writer. A few episodes ago, we talked about how a good travel writer will make you want to do things that you know are a wrong choice for you. ‘West with the Night’ made me want to go back and be a pilot in a two-seater over Africa in the 1930s — a decision that I suspect would kill me immediately. West with the Night has since become one of Nation Geographic’s best adventure books of all time.

David: If anything I’ve said sounds even kind of like something you’d like to read, I recommend giving it a look. It’s West with the Night by Beryl Markham.

Melissa: My second recommendation is The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. This is an epic poem that tells the creation myth of the Gĩkũyũ (geh-KO-yo) people of Kenya.

Melissa: Before I get into the book, I need to talk about the author. Because HE is epic. Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o is a teacher, novelist, essayist, and playwright. His list of accolades is very, very long, so I cherry picked these: He was shortlisted for The Man Booker International Prize 2009 for his body of work and was longlisted for The International Booker Prize in 2021 for this book. According to the internet, Barack Obama is among his fans.

Melissa: But before all of that, in 1977, Thiong’o wrote his first novel. It’s called Petals of Blood and tells the story of four characters in the time just after Kenya won its independence. One night, after its publication, he was arrested and held without trial in a maximum-security prison. During the year that he was jailed, he wrote another novel — by hand on the scratchy prison toilet paper. And eventually, he chronicled his time in prison in a memoir called Wrestling with the Devil. That story is told in one extended flashback and describes his arrest and the agony of not knowing the charges against him or how long he would be incarcerated.

Melissa: I think all of us would understand it if this man was bitter and disillusioned. But he doesn’t seem to be. He says that in prison, he clung to the idea that art is not just creativity, but is a form of resistance. And, he said, ‘Resistance is the best way of keeping alive.’ While in prison, he decided to decolonize his own mind. He stopped writing in English and wrote in his native Gĩkũyũ instead. In 2018, he turned his talents to retelling the traditional Gĩkũyũ creation myth.

Melissa: According to the mythology, God put Gikuyu, which means man, and Mumbi, which means woman, on the snowcapped top of Mount Kenya, They looked all around at the beautiful land at their feet, then climbed down, made a home, and had ten daughters known as the Perfect Nine. When the girls were of marrying age, Gikuyu asked God to provide for his girls. One morning, the family found 99 handsome suitors outside their home, all eager to partner with their daughters. An epic adventure followed to find the right match for each girl.

Melissa: I want to read you the start of the Prologue to set the scene:

  • I will tell the tale of Gīkūyū and Mūmbi
  • And their daughters, the Perfect Nine,
  • I will tell of their travels, and
  • The countless hardships they met on the way…
  • They faced hazards big enough to shatter the hearts of many.
  • Their bodies trembled, but their hearts remained unshaken.

Melissa: The author said that he’d been reading epics from other cultures — the Odyssey, the Iliad, Indian epic poems, another one from Catalan in Spain — and it inspired him to transform his own tradition into an epic. Like those other examples, this story is filled with larger-than-life adventures. The Perfect Nine and their suitors face mortal danger and experience magical and inexplicable things. The story is told with hyperbole and humor while our heroes run afoul of man-eating ogres, deadly crocodiles, relentless mosquitos, and a giant looming forest that suddenly disappears.

Melissa: The descriptions of the ogres are a delight: there’s the squint-eyed ogre, the ogre who makes men swallow dirt whether they like it or not. There’s the Ogre of Endless Darkness who says, ‘I am TheDarknessDarkerThanDarkness! I make clean hearts darker than darkness by Leading them into paths of darkness and leaving them there. My darkness can never be undarkened.’ I mean —

Melissa: A major difference between this epic poem and Greek mythology is its feminist perspective. In his intro, Thiong’o says that the daughters grew up without brothers and had to depend on themselves, acquiring survival skills and working the land. He says that the Perfect Nine were the original feminists. When the Perfect Nine and their would-be husbands are out adventuring, the text says, ‘There was no saying this is men’s or women’s work. We did tasks according to ability and necessity and inclination.’

Melissa: This is a quick read — it’s just 240 pages. It’s accessible and profound at the same time. And it really wants to be read out loud. You could read it to someone you love — including yourself — or read along with the audiobook. The Kenyan-American actor Benjamin Onyango has recorded many of Thiong’o’s books. His voice is rich and velvety and has just the right hint of a musicality. It’s the perfect match to the content. This book is The Perfect Nine: The Epic of Gĩkũyũ and Mũmbi by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

David: My next book is ‘When Stars are Scattered’ by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson. This is a graphic novel intended for children, aged 9 to 12, according to the good people at Penguin / Random House. This is a little shocking to me. This is a story that has some darkness to it, and some emotional depth. There are things in this book that might need unpacking no matter how old you are.

David: When Stars are Scattered is an autobiographical story. It centers on two brothers: Mohammed and Hassan. They’re from Somalia. They’ve fled there because one day, insurgents came to their house, and killed their father. Shortly after that, they are separated from their mother, and their sisters. They were toddlers at the time. When the story starts, Mohammed and Hassan have made their way to a refugee camp in Kenya. They have been there for seven years.

David: One of the brothers, Hassan, is non-verbal. He has seizures. He is usually adorable, but sometimes, he just gets up and runs off. The boys are being cared for by an older woman they met at the camp there. They live in a tent. They sleep on a mat on a dirt floor. I’m going to tell you some things about this book, but it’s important to say upfront that somehow, magically, this book has a core of optimism to it.

David: The refugee center that they’re at is not a small place. It’s called Dadaab. When the brothers arrived, it had a population of about 150 thousand. It’s since gotten to a quarter of a million. According to the UN, it’s the third largest refugee center in the world. And you get a good look at Dadaab.

David: The book presents the idea that everyone at a refugee center is suffering from trauma of some kind. Of course they are. They’ve lost everything. And that spills out as catatonia or drug-use or nightmares. Or fear that’s solidified into anger.

David: And there’s crushing poverty. Every fifteen days, there’s a delivery of rice and flour. But that never makes it to the next delivery, so there are days of just tea made from bark. Some local boys will steal your pants. Other boys play soccer with a ball made of plastic bags.

David: But the worst of it seems to be the waiting. There’s waiting for water, waiting for food, waiting to find out whether you might be lucky enough to be resettled. That process can spread out for years.

David: The book also paints a particularly bleak path for girls at Dadaab. One girl in the book is doing well in school, but then her father sells her into marriage for immediate financial gain. And that’s it. She now has little hope of leaving Dadaab. It feels tragic and sudden and final.

David: The main storyline of this book is about Omar’s education. It is the only thing that will get him out of the camp. And he likes doing it. And he’s smart. But he also wants to take care of his brother. And how’s that supposed to work? Omar would also like to see his mother again. And it is very unclear whether that is possible.

David: This book. The cover makes it looks like you’re getting into some sweet Highlights story about the beauty of the African plains, and then BAM, right in the feels. For about 250 pages. I think a reader with even the slightest bit of empathy will need a nice walk and maybe a little lie-down after this one.

David: This book was a finalist for the 2020 National Book Awards. It was also named one of the year’s best books by the Chicago Public Library, The New York Times, and NPR. There’s a very well-rated audiobook for this. It’s got an entire cast, music, and sound effects. Usually, I’m committed to having graphics in my graphic novels, but the audiobook sounds great. Maybe consider both? Also, the major roads of Dadaab have been mapped by Google. So you can go to Google Maps, search there, drop the little man on the roads, and see what it looks like.

David: But, for the book. This is a surprisingly deep look at a refugee camp and the people there. It could work for readers of all ages. And if you’re looking for a read-along with someone younger, it’s definitely worth considering. This is ‘When Stars are Scattered’ by Omar Mohamed and Victoria Jamieson.

Melissa: My last recommendation is A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson. This is a short, sweet rom-com set in modern Nairobi. I loved it for four reasons: One, it’s a rom-com from the male perspective. Two, it has lots of details about bird watching and sightseeing in Kenya. Three, it’s mostly light and airy, but as secrets are revealed, the story has more depth than it appears at first. And four, reading it made me feel happy and nice.

Melissa: So, here’s the setup: Our hero is Mr. Malik. He’s a shy widower who’s son recently died. The core of Mr. Malik’s social life is his Tuesday bird-watching excursion led by a Scottish widow named Rose. She’s described as ‘red of hair and fair of skin.’ Mr. Malik is in love with Rose.

Melissa: He is also brown, short, round, and balding. If he was a bird, he would be a chubby little finch or wren. But, as the narrator of the story reminds us, ‘Passions burn as fiercely in Mr. Malik’s breast as in those of other men.’ He’s working up the courage to invite Rose to the annual Nairobi Hunt Club Ball when disaster strikes. His old school nemesis Harry shows up. Harry is a peacock. He’s rich and extroverted. Some people might call him a jokester, if they were being nice. Others might more accurately describe him as a bully. HE sets his sights on Rose, too.

Melissa: Rather than put Rose in the uncomfortable 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.

Melissa: 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. One of the things I enjoyed about this story is the different approaches that Mr. Malik and Harry take to looking for birds. Because their methods show us two different sides of Kenya.

Melissa: Our sweet wren Mr. Malik looks for birds in his everyday life. So with him, we get to see a little bit of what it’s like to live in Nairobi. He looks for birds in his yard, and a nearby city park that’s maybe a little past its prime. He hunts at the mouth of the sewer. It’s not a glamping safari, but it is interesting. We meet his shamba boy. That’s a young man who helps him with his garden and projects around the house. Benjamin, the shamba boy, is sixteen and never been kissed. He gets full board and lodging with Mr. Malik plus pay.

Melissa: Here’s a description of his routine: ‘Once a month he climbed up a ladder on to the roof and swept the gutters. What he swept up he took outside and burned on a bonfire by the side of the road. Every residential street in Nairobi is 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.’

Melissa: Harry, the peacock, of course does the opposite. He uses his wealth and influence to travel all over Kenya in search of exotic birds and other wildlife. With him, we visit Lake Victoria, Mt. Kenya, a rainforest, and Nairobi National Park. HIS bird watching adventures are 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 were 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.’

Melissa: I should also mention that the narrator sometimes comments on the action and addresses the reader. He seems amused by the proceedings. It’s very charming — a subtle sort of nod to 19th-century style which maps nicely to the content. I found this book just darling and the pages turned themselves. It’s a good antidote to the heaviness of something like Dust, and I like them together as a complete reading experience. This is A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson.

Melissa: If you read and enjoy this book, the author wrote a sequel. It’s called A Guide to the Beasts of East Africa, and it finds our wren Mr. Malik planning a safari and investigating the real-life, decades-old murder of Lord Errol.

David: Those are five books we love, set in Kenya. Visit our show notes at for links and details.

David: Mel, where are we going for our next episode?

Melissa: We’re heading to South America to eat some empanadas and dance the tango in Argentina.

[cheerful music]

Top image courtesy of Not your average nomad/Shutterstock.

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There are so many things to see and do in Kenya. Yes, you can go on a safari. (Glamping, anyone?) You can also meet the Maasai in a traditional village and stroll narrow lanes in the romantic coastal city of Mombasa.
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