One of the most captivating lines for me in this extraordinary book is “some of us went to the forest and others to the mission schools.” Al Kags’ Living Memories is a collection of stories told by ordinary Kenyans over 65 years of age, who grew up in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. It features true experiences told in a conversational way, in the first person.

Al Kags has without a doubt made us look closely at each of our grandparents and realize we are but one homestead, one people one heritage. The book is short and precise to the point in its delivery of accounts that take place in the lives of the characters. Its chapters are each the recollections of people who lived during a time when everything was black and white. The colors and lines that divided those who ruled and those who watched, those who fought and those who kept their heads down and survived, all so clearly give us a glimpse into what resilience we all have within us if given a chance.

His choice of characters is diverse and gives a sense of balance and objectivity. The book covers both men and women which gives it a familiarity to both men and women and their roles in pre-independence Kenya. For most of us who know very little about our history as a nation it is a pleasant surprise to find that every Kenyan regardless of tribe made their contribution. They all have scares from what they saw or heard or felt. The Book is particularly vivid on the epiphany that particular moment when each individual made a choice to do something for themselves for their loved ones or for their neighbor.

The stories are set in colonial Kenya before Kenya’s independence in 1963. The book is essentially a chronology of ordinary Kenyans experiences, describing how they coped with their lives in the midst of the oppression of colonialism. In the poignant interviews, elders from across Kenya share their memories of what life was like in the struggle for Kenya’s independence as well as the hopes for a brand new Kenya. In some of the stories, the elders reflect on the progress Kenya has taken, especially in the light of the 2007/8 post election crisis.
The stories interweave between figures like Tom Mboya and back to Dedan Kimathi. For instance the when one of the characters says “it just takes one experience that impact you strongly, like meeting Tom Mboya.” Her entire story is personal and seems have little to do with national politics but her personal encounter opens up an opportunity to tie in her story to the national figure. Most of us know Dedan Kimathi was feared but few of us can understand how intelligent and selfless he was his encounter with the host headed youth with Zeal to do something for his country reveals the character of a man few of us can comprehend or even empathize with. His Legacy was more than just independence but Vision for his cause and education for young people regardless of their ethnic origins.

The brutality of the era is etched clearly in every account. The loss of life both white and Black and the abuse meted out on women, children young men is heart wrenching but the vital way it is described in the book gives it a sense of normalcy without taking away the significance and prevalence of it through out the country. For instance the one of the characters describes how she lost her mother at the hands of a home guard “….the moving lorry that now was gliding down a hill, wordlessly threw her out of the lorry.” Or how mothers prepared their twelve year olds to be brave in the face of rape “she had told us not to fight them, to let them do what they wanted because they could not hurt our souls and minds.”

Al Kags intention to document but not interfere with truth is noble as he allows the characters to speak for themselves and this awakens the most beautiful character in the book which is this country. For most of us Kenya was like a stranger on a bus seated next to us but not once have we prodded her on where she been or where is she going.
This book gives a glimpse into what is it like to have been there and how far the characters in the book have travelled with her.

Living memories is a very short answer for to these questions yet it has shown how she has covered every scar, taken us on the journey to every wrinkle in her face, the beauty and pride in her simple dress and the honor each character in this book has bestowed upon her in her time of need.

The book leaves one hoping the journey into the past; colorful, horrific and often times inspiring memories of the elders of this nation doesn’t end with the epilogue.

About The author

Alex Kagwe (born on August, 13 1980), who changed his name to Al Kags, is a prominent writer and poet in Kenya. He is the founder of the Al Kags Trust for Poetry. He is also the creator and publisher of the Quarterly Colour Series of Poetry, which started September 2006 and is read by over 175,000 people around the world. Al Kags is also a leading entrepreneur in ICT and media circles. He blogs here

© Lydiah Nyawira