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Writing Lively Stories Set in
Colonial and Postcolonial
Kenya
by Harriet McGuire

If your students’ knowledge of colonialism
in Africa is based on viewing the 1985
Meryl Streep / Robert Redford film Out of
Africa, consider balancing that view with a
story set two generations later,
The Mzungu
Boy, by Kenyan author and filmmaker Meja Mwangi. Originally
published in 1990 as Little White Man, The Mzungu Boy was released
in North America in 2005 by Groundwood Books. It is winner of the
2006 Children’s Africana Book Award for Best Book for Older
Readers, given by the Outreach Council of the African Studies
Association.

Set in the 1950s, The Mzungu Boy portrays life on a colonial
plantation as seen through the eyes of Kariuki, the twelve-year-old
son of the cook for the White planter’s family. This book continues
the story of Kariuki, who was introduced in the children’s novel
Jimi
the Dog
, and his tender friendship with a village mongrel that his
older brother had presented to him. In The Mzungu Boy, Kariuki
describes the world of his village:

Everything in our village ran according to a hierarchy. Above everyone
were Bwana Ruin, Mamsab Ruin and any white person who happened
to come along. Then came the village men. Then came the women
and girls. And then came the rest of us. The boys and village dogs
were at the bottom of the ladder, below the goats, the sheep and the
chickens. (49)

Kariuki learns to survive in this well ordered world—and even to have
fun. Two outside influences occur that change his life forever: the
Mau Mau men in the forest and Nigel, the grandson of the Ruins who
is on summer vacation from England.

The two become instant friends, unaffected by the racism and
violence that surrounds them. Although the story ends unhappily
with the death of Kariuki’s brother, the theme of the novel is that
“hope and transformation…rest with children like Kariuki and Nigel
who are not corrupted by the violence and hierarchy that govern their
lives” (Khorana 154). Mwangi’s writing is as dramatic and fast-paced
as a screenplay, providing a vivid sense of a rural youth’s life at the
time when the freedom fighters had begun to demand their land and
independence from the British colonists.

Mwangi based the novel on his own experiences of growing up in a
rural area dominated by White settlers.1 Meja Mwangi was born in
Nanyuki, Kenya, in 1948, and was educated at Nanyuki Secondary
School and Kenyatta College.

His first novel,
Kill Me Quick, was written in 1973 while he worked as
a sound technician for TV ORTF, a French television station based in
Nairobi. This young adult novel displays Mwangi’s talent for writing
lively stories depicting rural youth and societal problems in Kenya. It
narrates the experiences of Meja and Maina, two youths who have
come to the city with the hope of bettering their lives, confident that
their high school diplomas will lead to success. However, they are
unable to compete for jobs in the city and, ultimately, they resort to
petty theft and crime, and being exploited by employers. Vivian
Yenika-Agbaw, in her article “‘Half Education Is Madness!’: Mwangi’s
Teenage Characters Battle Poverty in a Postcolonial African City,”
states that the novel shows the failure of the educational curriculum
in postcolonial Africa. She writes that it is “a typical story of a dream
deferred because each pays the price of daring to hope for a better
life” (15). Kill Me Quick was also made into a stage play.

Mwangi’s second novel,
Carcase for Hounds, was written while he
worked as a film librarian for the British Council in Nairobi. It won the
inaugural Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature and was adapted for a
1981 film set in Nigeria, Cry Freedom, depicting a guerrilla leader’s
fight for national independence against the British colonialists.

These first two successes brought Mwangi a fellowship for the
University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP) for 1975-76.
Reflecting on this transforming experience, he writes:

I was relatively green in the field of creative writing and,
consequently, the experience was staggering. We had a group of
very good, very experienced writers there, and the wealth of
knowledge and experience I gathered from them would only become
clear to me later. Such things as commitment, dedication and
discipline were relatively alien to me and, if truth be told, I wasn’t sure
I wanted to be a writer then, or indeed if I was one. I loved the
process but not the labor. (Email to McGuire)  

Two months after joining the International Writing Program at the
University of Iowa, Mwangi quit his job with the British Council and
decided to write full time. Although today he considers that move to
be a big mistake in some ways, he says he has learned a lot from
that mistake, especially the important lesson of just how hard it is to
write. “I am now convinced,” he continues, “I would not have written
as frequently had I not made a commitment. So I have the IWP to
thank for the terrible and the wonderful things” (Email to McGuire).

Upon returning to Kenya, he embarked on producing a steady stream
of novels for children, young adults, and adults, most of them
published by East African Educational Publishers in their PEAK Library
series. Several of these novels are available in the United States
through the partnership that African Books Collective has formed
with Michigan State University Press.2 Some of the notable titles
Mwangi published were
Going Down River Road, The Cockroach
Dance, The Bushtrackers
, Bread of Sorrow, Weapon for
Hunger
, Striving for the Wind, and The Last Plague.

Mwangi’s keen eye for the drama and humor in everyday rural life in Kenya
shines throughout his work.
Striving for the Wind, set in the drought
years of the 1980s, contrasts a traditional farmer, who is dependent
on oxen for plowing, with a wealthy neighbor whose imported tractor
is incapacitated during a global petrol crisis. While this novel is
suitable for young adults, it does not shy away from some painful
realities. It includes the seduction of a young schoolgirl by a rich old
man, and when the young girl becomes pregnant, his son says that
he will marry her in his father’s place. The girl eventually dies in
childbirth, but her twins will be raised by the parents.
Other themes that are common
to all his works are the
difficulties young educated
Kenyans face when trying to
return to their rural homes to
apply their learning and the
impact of corrupt officials on
the lives of the poor.
The young adult
novel
The Last Plague, which won Mwangi his
third Jomo Kenyatta Prize for Literature in 2001,
offers a seldom-heard African male perspective on
the impact of HIV/AIDS in rural areas. Again, it
features a well-educated, well-meaning young man
facing many obstacles as he tries to set up his
veterinary practice in a small, dying town. A
teenage boy is among the enlightened, promoting
condoms for school children. Mwangi’s tremendous
concern for the poor and disadvantaged—and his
prescriptions for how they could really be helped—
resonate throughout the novel. The author’s
special talent for creating hilarious action scenes
begs for an opportunity to translate this story into
film.

While continuing to write, he also became involved
with filmmaking in various capacities, eventually
directing one documentary and one television
series. He participated in Sidney Pollack’s Kenyan
production of Out of Africa as third Assistant
Director, coordinating the Kikuyu extras. According
to Mwangi, he “was very, very far behind the
camera…but I enjoyed it as a great experience, and
it raised my interest in filmmaking” (Email to
McGuire). Adaptations of his works for television
broadcast as miniseries or as films have been
proposed, but are still awaiting production due to
lack of funding.

Mwangi continues to be a prolific writer. His latest
novel, The Boy Gift, will be released in North
America toward the end of 2006. Suitable for
adults and young adults alike, it is about the
confusion caused by the birth of a light-skinned,
green-eyed baby in the Bush Hospital. While
political aspirations and intrigue surround the birth
of the boy, at the emotional and psychological
levels the author explores a community’s reaction
to the strange and inexplicable “Other.” Mwangi is
currently revising a 1990 novel, The Return of
Shaka, which was inspired by his friendship with a
South African artist at the University of Iowa.

The Mzungu Boy, this year’s CABA winner, is
an important book for young teenagers who
want to understand how the colonial system
impacted on the lives of rural youth in Kenya.
Readers interested in fast-paced stories that
impart considerable information on
contemporary obstacles to rural development
and healthcare are encouraged to continue
reading the impressive list of novels published
by Meja Mwangi. Meanwhile, one hopes that
these delightful stories, with wonderfully
complex male and female characters of all
ages, will sooner or later make their way into
film.

Notes
1.        Information on the author’s personal life is
based on Meja Mwangi’s email to Harriet McGuire,
25 Sept. 2006.

2.        See ,
www.AfricanBooksCollective.com. and
order via <
www.msupress.msu.edu>, or contact
Justin Cox, the Manager of African Books Collective
North America, at <
coxju@msu.edu>.

Works Cited
Khorana, Meena. Africa in Literature for Children
and Young Adults: An Annotated
Bibliography of English-Language Books.
Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1994.  
Mwangi, Meja. The Boy Gift. Columbus, OH: HM
Books, Forthcoming.
---. Mama Dudu, Columbus, OH, HM Books, 2007
---. Bread of Sorrow. Nairobi, Longman Kenya,
1980.
---. The Bushtrackers. Nairobi, Longman Kenya
1980.
---. Carcase for Hounds. London, Heinemann
Educational Publishers 1974.
---. The Cockroach Dance. Nairobi, Longman
Kenya1979.
---. Email to Harriet McGuire. 25 Sept. 2006.
---. Going Down River Road. London, Heinemann
Educational Publishers, 1976.  
---. Interview with Harriet McGuire. 7 Sept. 2006.
---. Jimi the Dog. Nairobi, Longman Kenya, 1990.  
---. Kill Me Quick. London: Heinemann, 1973.  
---. The Last Plague. Nairobi, Kenya: East African
Educational, 2000.
---. Little White Man. Nairobi, Kenya: Longman,
1990.  
---. The Mzungu Boy. Toronto: Groundwood
Books / House of Anansi Press, 2005.
---. Striving for the Wind. Nairobi: East African
Educational, 1990.
---. Weapon for Hunger. Nairtobi, Longman Kenya,
1989.
Yenika-Agbaw, Vivian. “‘Half Education Is
Madness!’: Mwangi’s Teenage Characters
Battle Poverty in a Postcolonial African City.”
Sankofa 2 (2003): 13-19.

Harriet McGuire is a retired US Foreign Service
Officer with fifteen years’ experience living in six
African countries. She serves on advisory boards
for Africa Access, Mbari:  The Institute for
Contemporary African Art, and the Warren Robbins
Library at the Smithsonian Institution’s National
Museum of African Art.
The Mzungu Boy
The Mzungu Boy
groundwood books
2005
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