Soma Nami’s Books in Review

We are pleased to announce a new guest column by the book-loving owners of Soma Nami, Wendy Njoroge and Muthoni Muiruri.

By Wendy Njoroge

Travelling while black. Essays inspired by a life on the move by Nanjala Nyabola


In this collection of essays, Nyabola shares observations and remarks gleaned from a life of traversing the globe, across 70 countries and four continents. With each of the 17 essays, she delves into the depths of her personal journey, offering poignant reflections on a number of current affairs, from asylum seekers being shut out to xenophobia rearing its ugly head to the complications of hiking while female, each essay a reflection of the layers of navigating the world through her lens – that of a black African woman on the move.

One recurring theme that Nyabola confronts head-on is the pervasive influence of Western media in shaping our perceptions of different places. She observes how these narratives often inform our expectations and judgments, revealing the inherent biases embedded within them. Yet, amidst these preconceptions, Nyabola discovers an unexpected truth in her journey to Haiti—her black skin affords her a certain invisibility, allowing her easier access to the country’s social spaces in ways she hadn’t anticipated.

Nanjala Nyabola. Image via University of Capetown.

In yet another essay, she grapples with the ethics of humanitarian imagery. Nyabola raises necessary questions about the portrayal of human suffering and its impact on our collective consciousness. She challenges us to consider the lasting repercussions of such depictions and the dangerous precedent it sets for our capacity for empathy, urging us to confront our complicity in perpetuating these narratives.

Through her encounters with economic refugees in Guatemala and on the European shores of the Mediterranean, she sheds light on the systemic injustices that drive individuals to embark on perilous journeys in search of a better life. She traces the root causes of this crisis back to the economic policies enforced by wealthier nations, which disproportionately harm the most vulnerable populations in the Global South. In doing so, she reminds us of the interconnectedness of our world and the collective moral imperative to address these inequalities. This is reflective of the words of the famous Somali poet Warsan Shire ‘no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark’ 

Among the essays, “Looking for Bessie” emerges as my personal favorite, no surprise here as I have been fascinated by African writers of Head’s generation for a long time now.  Nyabola goes to Botswana to trace what remains of a literary giant of yester years. This essay is a heartfelt homage to the literary legacy of Bessie Head. In recounting Head’s literary and activist life, she memorializes one of the most iconic women writers who lived for the greater part of her life as a stateless person, having been exiled from apartheid South Africa and never naturalized in Botswana where she sought refuge. In interweaving her own inspirational moments from her encounter with Head’s work, Nyabola underscores the enduring power of literature to transcend time and space, forging connections across generations and continents. 

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Throughout this collection, Nyabola holds up a mirror to each one of us, both at home and abroad, confronting uncomfortable truths about xenophobia, economic disparity, and leadership failures. 

From the streets of Nairobi to the remote trails of her hiking expeditions, she navigates the intricate web of power dynamics and privilege with a keen eye for detail and nuance. Nyabola’s essays oscillate between the grand and the intimate, each offering a profound insight into the complexities of the human experience. Whether reflecting on global crises or the mundane realities of everyday life, she invites readers to join her in a journey of self-discovery and collective introspection. 

Soma Nami Books (above) is an independent, pan-African bookstore with locations in Kilimani and Ngara.