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The great educational tools that are autobiographies, biographies



In introducing former US First Lady Michelle Obama’s book Becoming, media houses picked up the pain of miscarriage as entry point in endearing the book to readers.

In touching off the problem, media underscored the enduring value of biographical writing: to demonstrate that almost all human face more or less similar challenges.

A good biography contains incidents of success and failure, hopes and disillusionment, rises and falls, and rises again.

It was not by accident that almost the entire media fraternity picked up the challenge of motherhood Mrs Obama went through as an entry point into her book.

Such books help readers to see the inner struggles of the person writing or being written about, the obstacles they ran up to, and how they coped with them.

Readers not only see and feel the nature of the obstacles, they also see and feel the mental, moral, personality conflicts that the protagonist had to overcome, circumvent or downplay in his/her quest to attain something.

The readers go through the same obstacles but are able to learn some of the traits and habits that made the person being written about to forge forward.

The lesson learnt is that even the great had their moments of doubts, uncertainty and even failure but with courage, tenacity and focus, they forged ahead.

Apart from giving readers the opportunity to see a man in the thick of trouble and getting out unbowed, biographies make one appreciate complex policy issues through the eyes of the person writing or being written about.

In reading about the life of such inimitably great men like Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela, you have had a glimpse into their minds.

It is unfortunate that some of the greatest biographies are beyond the reading ability of primary and secondary school students. It is also unfortunate that Kenyans who have attempted to write autobiographies have educated adults in mind.

Some of the greatest and most readable biographies include Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela, Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglas, Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington and The Story of My Experiments with Truth by Mahatma Gandhi.

The thrust of this article is to strike a blow, a shout out to parents of school-going children to buy biographies of great people.

Brave attempts have been made to write biographies about individuals who have played a part in shaping Kenya as a nation. I have biographies on Mwai Kibaki, Nelson Mandela and others written for the young. We need more of such books.

I don’t see any reason we should have heavy biographies on Kenyan greats and others from outside when we don’t have abridged versions to prepare children for the tomes that define the intellectual and moral landscape of truly educated people in the western world.