The Murumbi collection-photo essay

Collective Magic: session #1
Jackie Karuti

I’ve been spending my time for the last couple of weeks browsing through Joseph Murumbi’s library at the National Archives. Below are some selections out of the thousands of titles. As I try and figure out who this man was I’m realising he was easily Kenya’s record keeper. I don’t think young Kenyans realise how properly we were colonised and what the white man thought about us. Still thinks about us.


The 60’s. Africa as a continent was gaining independence left, right, centre and there was both excitement and tension. The stench of betrayal was as heavy as the breezy wind of victory. It was a time of celebration and assassinations. (ahem…the beginnings of my yet to be published novel). Murumbi collected everything. He had stamps from places he travelled and from various correspondences and subscriptions. He had books and records documenting activities in every African country. He subscribed to journals, magazines and periodicals about pan-Africanism, literature, arts and culture even wildlife. A big deal is made about his collection of artefacts but I think his books are worth a tidy sum in both intellectual and monetary value. He also had a foreign language collection. He was fluent in various languages. His own mother was a polyglot. It also makes sense seeing as he was the country’s minister of Foreign Affairs at one point before he became the country’s Vice President. I am purposely not mentioning the state of the books because it’s quite deplorable. Also of course not everything is out there for the public to see. Most of his correspondence, letters and other the sensitive cables are locked up somewhere…in a vault possibly in the UK. Some interesting finds in the library have been:


-A 1967 copy of The New York Times. A note signed 9th July 1967 is attached by Anne Thurston who interviewed Murumbi and published these conversations in the book, A Path Not Taken.


-Copies of JOE magazine. Founded by writer/publisher Hillary Ng’weno and artist Terry Hirst, JOE magazine was published regularly between 1973 and 1979. It was named after “Joe”, a common man who used humour to deal with and expose the realities of urban life in contemporary Africa.


-Copies of Black Orpheus magazine. The journal of African and Afro-American literature that began publication in Nigeria in 1957. It’s founding editor was Uli Beier, and it was edited, among others, by Wole Soyinka and the South African writer Eskia Mphahlele. Black Orpheus published poetry, art, fiction, literary criticism and commentary, and took inspiration from older African artistic and literary traditions. Other contributors and editors, including Leopold Senghor, Camara Laye, Andrew Salkey and Lon Damas, reflected its Pan-African reach and ability to attract writers of distinction.


Kenya, Settlement Handbook. This was basically the settlers guide to exploring Kenya. A kind of app that allowed you to navigate efficiently. It listed where to have a good time, buy timber, get your watercolours framed, go on hunting safaris, shop, eat…I found it interesting because a lot of these places mentioned are still familiar. It’s quite shameless in it’s recommendations. They knew they were never leaving this place.


-A copy of the book Negro by Nancy Cunard. It was first published in 1934. It has attained the status of a cult classic apparently. The list of contributors – represented in poetry, prose, translations, and music – is a who’s who of 20th-century arts and literature: Louis Armstrong, Samuel Beckett, Norman Douglas, Nancy Cunard herself, Theodore Dreiser, W. E. B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, William Plomer, Arthur Schomburg, William Carlos Williams, and more. In its subject and international approach, Negro was generations ahead of its time. Its exploration of black achievement and black anger takes the reader from life in America to the West Indies, South America, Europe, and Africa. Though very much of its time, Negro is also timeless in its depiction of oppressive social and political conditions as well as in its homage to myriad contributions by black artists and thinkers. Only 1000 copies of this book were ever printed. This particular copy is signed by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta on the first page. Possibly a gift to Murumbi.


-An Italian language copy of I, Kikuyu by Mzee Jomo Kenyatta. I can’t find any trace of this book. Also Italian?


African Writers Series. A series of books by African writers that has been published by Heinemann since 1962. The series has ensured an international voice to major African writers including Chinua Achebe, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, Steve Biko, Ama Ata Aidoo, Nadine Gordimer, Buchi Emecheta, and Okot p’Bitek. The emphasis is on Anglophone Africa although a number of volumes were translated into English from French, Portuguese, Zulu, Kiswahili, Acoli, Sesotho, Afrikaans, Luganda and Arabic. The books are listed chronologically according to year published and each bears a number at the top right side making them collectible items. Finally yes. The ‘African Novel’ is indeed orange. Who decided this? I do like this vintage, matt, orange-white colourway though compared to the modern glossy covers with their sunset, acacia trees and birds.


Joseph Murumbi: A Legacy of Integrity by Karen Rothmyer.This is the latest book on Murumbi. Launching June 22nd 2018 in Nairobi.





*Thoughts on the Mcmillan Memorial Library coming soon…

*This page is ephemeral* ok maybe not.