Set books and the value of literary arts

Incoming batch selected by the late Magoha is full of gems

In Summary

• As parents purchase these new set books, it is advisable that they read them, too

Student in a library
Student in a library

On this day, a great writer born in Ukraine died in Russia. No, not today but he died 171 years ago on March 4, 1852. Nikolai Gogol, who straddled the two lands like a colossus, is considered one of the greatest writers of the Russian language. The devastating war between the two country rages on today, but pundits will remind you that the two lands once existed as one.

Many of the famous writers of Russia have their natal and uterine roots in Ukraine. Besides Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov, the post-Revolutionary satirist and the Russian writer of Jewish roots, Isaac Babel, are some of the famous authors of the Russian language born in Ukraine.

I remember Gogol today as I did a quarter a century ago at Bungoma High School in faraway western Kenya. We studied his famous satirical play The Government Inspector for our O-level English exams. It was one of the obligatory set books for the literature lessons.

The Government Inspector was inspired by a juicy anecdote Gogol heard in 1835 from his many hobnobbing with his mentor Alexander Pushkin, the giant of Russian literature, whose ancestral roots are from Ethiopia to our north. It launches a scathing attack at the grand corruption and moral poverty of his society back then.

Is Kenya today after Independence any different? It is true to this very day, many are the age-mates I meet in high school reunions or social media walks down memory lanes, who still remember details of this hilarious play as if they read it yesterday.

One wondered aloud, the other day at a deserted automobile park of a cathedral, as he lit his cigarette against the public regulation, “Makokha, how could the government of the 1990s allow this anti-corruption play be a set book at a time when Kenya was wallowing in a miasma of grand corruption?”

Perhaps the government does not read what it recommends for the classrooms, a thought from ether assailed me in silence.


Last year, the government released the list of the set books for the O-level students in the key language subjects of Kenya: Kiswahili and English. They will guide the teachers of the two subjects in high school to teach, examine and prepare their learners in upper forms for the final exams between 2022 and 2026.

As the old 8-4-4 curriculum closes shop and the new CBC one firms up, these set books could as well be the final batch from the government in the old curriculum. The last of the 8 -4 -4 are in Class 8 this year, and one of them is my nephew. He will join Form 1 next year in 2024, and sit his Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education exam in 2027.

Some of the set books are obligatory and will have a question or two in the exams paper between this year and 2027. The Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development approved these literary texts in 2021. The Education ministry, under the late Prof George Magoha, selected the books as replacements for those of the earlier batch, which formed the basis of literature examination in the KCSE last year.

Most schools started teaching the set books in January. The set books for literature in Kiswahili (known as Fasihi) are Bembea (Merry-go-round) by Timothy Moriasi, an interesting play tackling contemporary issues of our societies today.

The short story genre is represented by Mapambazuko ya Machweo na Hadithi Nyingine [Dawn of Dusk and Other Stories], an anthology of narratives, including from the respected Swahili philologist and critic Prof Clara Momanyi of Catholic University of Eastern Africa (CUEA). She is the author of another prominent play shortlisted as a high school reader, called Nguu za Jadi (Summits of Antiquity).

The list is longer of the books being read and studied in the literature in English. The Tanzanian writer, whose use of English as a literary medium in a land famous for its Swahili literature called Paul Vitta, has a novel in our syllabus now called Fathers of the Nations.

Like Yusuf Dawood, who died the other day, Vitta is a trained scientist who picked up the art and craft of creative writing as a lifelong passion on the eaves of his sterling career in physics. He is a professor of the subject at the University of Dar es Salaam.

You may remember that over a decade ago, another scientist, Margaret Ogolla, a physician, became the first non-literature specialist to have her novel on the high school reading list. Hers, called The River and the Source, is a work of great aesthetic weight. History, moral values and gender issues loom large in the text, just as ICT does in another new set book called The Samaritan by John Lara.

High schools are being exposer to the rich dramatic genre of Gogol through a Kenyan play called Parliament of the Owls by Adipo Sidang. Born 37 years ago, he is one of the rising stars of contemporary Kenyan literature. Sidang is a multi-talented artist, who works with various genres to articulate important issues of our time.

As parents buy these new set books, it is advisable that they read them, too. In Tanzania, a novel series popular with high schoolers and teens has just been banned for going against the values of that nation.

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