Most authors spend many hours researching topics before they begin writing. For fiction, getting details right is important, but for nonfiction it’s essential.
I recently returned from Kenya after gathering material for a story I’m writing. Yes, I saw many different parts of the country, but my goal was getting background material for a biography on one of the leaders of the Mau-Mau rebellion, when Kenya declared its independence from Great Britain.
To do this, I traveled over back roads to meet the man’s son, who was a schoolboy at the time his father was arrested. When I say back roads, I don’t mean the usual country roads. These were roads typically traversed on foot or motorbike. While we jounced along, huge chunks of rock and piles of dirt scraped the underside of the van. At times we could only pass by driving with two wheels in the ditch at the side of the road. Sometimes the van tilted so much, it seemed as if we were riding on two wheels rather than four. This harrowing ride was made more difficult when we needed to pass an occasional vehicle by a hair’s breadth.
After more than an hour, we came to the remote village in the mountains. We took a tour of the extensive farm, then settled in for the interview, while his wife cooked beef stew over coals in a small metal fire pit in the kitchen. Chickens wandered into the screened-in porch, while a goose pecked at the screen as his story unfolded. He began with the family tree, so I would know his father’s history. He rattled off names and dates. What an incredible memory! And I left his farm with a full stomach and many memories of my own.
The next day we visited the prison where many Mau-Mau revolutionaries were held. Because the prison is still in use, we had to wait for the guards to clear all the prisoners from the areas we would be touring. And we received special permission to take a few pictures. The prisoners watched from behind barbed wire fencing while we entered the older buildings on the grounds. It was an emotional day for the independence leader’s daughter because this was the first time she had seen the cells where her father was held for seven years. Throughout the tour, the guards were very respectful of the descendant of a man who’d helped secure Kenya’s freedom.
I spent one day at the area considered the “Eden” of the Kikuyu people and heard their origin story and history, and viewed historical artifacts, granaries (pictured), and homes. The fight for independence mainly began with the Kikuyu, who wanted to stop British settlers from taking over their land. Ancient and modern history combined later when I got to hear about politics from an official in the present-day government who is Kikuyu.
Another stop was the archives in Nairobi, which has a museum on the first two floors that added to my knowledge of history. My main goal, though, was to look at official records. Although they could not pull the specific records I requested, they did bring me a file from 1954 titled “Information and Propaganda,” which contained British records of the revolts, arrests, and killings. It was jarring to read the British accounts after hearing the Kenyans laud the Mau Mau as freedom fighters. The British called them “terrorists.” Interesting to see how people with opposing points of view can describe the same events so differently.
Before I’d left for Africa, I’d read books about the period recommended by my Kenyan friend, and those accounts by Kenyan writers gave me a greater understanding of the culture and history. In addition, I had a long, handwritten account of family stories from the man’s son. Armed with that knowledge, I returned home to begin my library and online research. Having firsthand experiences and good official records will add richness and detail to the story that I would not have had otherwise. When the book is written, the manuscript will be sent to all the sources to check it for accuracy.
Reading about my travels and research might give some insight into how much background work can go into writing a children’s book. Stories come from the heart, but they need to be backed up by extensive research. Once the book is written, I hope sharing this small piece of history and one man’s commitment to Kenyan freedom will inspire children everywhere to dream big.