Another thing that came up in a recent email exchange was a request for “starter scholarship” on a particular African nation. For most contemporary African countries, I really feel that there is not a single great “done-in-one” book that is about that nation’s history in general. There are very good books about regions, about particular ethnic groups, about issues which affect multiple nations in Africa, or about localities and communities. But I get these requests so often in email, often from people who are planning to travel to some particular African country or who are soon to be stationed there in the Peace Corps or for some other reason, that I was thinking that I should publish a regular series of bibliographic recommendations.
So let’s start with a very appropriate list given the November news: the Luo people of Western Kenya, where the President-Elect’s father was from.
The Luo people live in present-day Kenya and parts of Uganda and Tanzania. They speak a Nilotic language related to languages spoken elsewhere in northeastern Africa. Much of the attention to their history and experience as a people centers on their political and social status within Kenya since independence.
None of these books are popular page-turners, keep in mind. I’m very fond of the Cohen-Odhiambo books not just because of personal connections but also as historiographical and methdological statements, but if your goal is to get a simple working knowledge of the Luo, you may find them frustrating.
Tom Mboya, The Challenge of Nationhood: A Collection of Speeches and Writings
The words and thoughts of the charismatic Luo nationalist (who started a scholarship program that benefitted the young Barack Obama Senior, the President’s father). Mboya was assassinated in 1969.
E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and David William Cohen, Siaya: The Historical Anthropology of an African Landscape.
Innovative, unusually structured exploration of themes in the 20th Century experience of Luo communities. Don’t read it expecting to get a bullet-point account of Luo history: it’s an attempt to explore the meanings and consciousness circulating within Luo communities from the inside out.
E.S. Atieno Odhiambo and David William Cohen, Burying SM. Like Siaya, a deliberately digressive, meditative account, in this case, focusing on the long legal and political struggle over the right to bury a Kenyan lawyer named S.M. Otieno. His wife wanted to bury him as a Christian, maintaining that his primary identity in life was as a modern, educated and national person, while his Luo relatives wanted to bury him according to Luo traditions, maintaining that Otieno had defined himself first and foremost as Luo.
Bethwell A. Ogot, History of the Southern Luo. A very carefully composed and thorough monograph. Not a page-turner but one of those works of history which everyone in the field ends up using as a standard reference.
Parker Shipton, “Debts and Trespasses: Land, Mortgages, and the Ancestors in Western Kenya”, Africa: Journal of the International African Institute, Vol. 62, No. 3, (1992), pp. 357-388. Goes well with Siaya. Shipton has a new book on some of these themes which I have not read yet.