How Kenya, land of contradictions, can inspire a novel

Kenya: land of contrasts and contradictions.

Of startling beauty and crippling poverty. Of sincere kindness and rotten politics. Of a thousand-hued landscapes and unyielding poaching.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been caught up in the sheer joy of the moment. Marvelling at the golden light slanting on the grass after a heavy downpour. And then, seconds later, an elderly woman staggers past, bent over beneath her crippling load of firewood, her face contorted in concentration and burden.

But this is Kenya: One moment it makes you feel intensely, gratifyingly alive. The next, it breaks your heart.

I’ve always been interested in that intersection at which the dark and light merges. I wanted to write a story in which naivety encounters, on one hand, something awe-inspiring: the yet-undeveloped plains of Nairobi in all its boundless, barren beauty. But, on other hand, my protagonist is exposed to the unfettered cruelty and neglect of the man she has been betrothed to, a man she has never met before. The plot is driven by such a dichotomy and my second novel, The Girl and the Sunbird, slowly emerged from this. 

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I have had the great privilege of living in Kenya for the past three and a half years with my husband and three children. With my family, we have made the most of our time here – because it certainly won’t be forever. We have rumbled across rough terrain in a 4×4 with the red dust churning up behind us. We have camped in remote spots and woken in the night to the sound of wild animals prowling around our tents. We have skimmed over the waves of the Indian Ocean and held our fingertips out to playful dolphins. We have barely scratched the surface of this incredible country.

But how lucky are we?

Very, very, VERY.

I’d like to share a few photos with you I’ve taken since living in Kenya, accompanied with some lines from The Girl and the Sunbird. Enjoy 🙂

Two of my children enjoying the Indian Ocean for the first time

‘I cast my eyes around desperately, following her wiry, outstretched finger and take a sharp intake of breath. I cannot deny it: it is an astonishing sight. Mombasa Island drips with flowering shrubs of colours so bright and so brilliant I could never have imagined such shades truly existed.’

The glowing plains of Kenya that can be found the length and breath of the country.

‘What I see, early that morning, I know I shall never see again. At least, not with such intensity. The wakening dawn is splashed with gold, painting everything it touches in gentle, glowing hues. Across the wild scrub sharp, thorny, hostile looking trees are dotted, their shadows defined against the rolling plains.’


As much as I would love to show you a photo I have taken of a sunbird, I take my hat off to anyone who manages to catch it. They are tiny and very, very quick. This is a superb starling I snapped.

‘Whilst we are sitting there, Mrs Lawrence lets out a startling and sudden cry, hastily jumping to her feet and, as she does so, upsetting her teacup and a brown stain of liquid fans out around her feet. I jump to my feet to assist her with the fallen cup, but she is paying not the least attention to that. She stands, in rapt attention, both hands clasped to her chest. I look in the direction she is gazing and see that in front of the verandah gate, where a potted plant sits, is a small, colourful bird partially hidden amongst its leaves.’


My eldest child

  ‘The colours are brighter, the trees taller, the forests more alive and the air sharper, mingled with woodsmoke and tropical flowers. Could I ever live here again, I wonder? Could I find peace back in this place that brought me so much pain?’


A beautiful Masaai lady we met a few months ago and talked to (well, tried to…)

‘We stand, the two of us, ankle-deep in mud and simply stare at one another. I notice the large, multiple-looped earrings that pass through every discernible part of her ear, from the lobe all the way to the top. How foreign we are to one another. What is she looking at as she sees me? How does my presence here affect her? And then, something I least expect: she parts her full, rounded lips and smiles at me.’


Mount Kenya. The name Kenya actually derives from Kirinyaga which in turn is taken from the tallest mountain in the country.

‘A compass runs along my veins, for it is does not matter what fancy clothes I wear, nor what fancy figures of speech I adopt, my Kikuyu blood flows as freely as the rivers that stream from Mount Kirinyaga’s summit.’

Ooooh, I have so many more photos I could share with you but I think I’ll stop there. How could I fail to be inspired by sights such as these? Inspiration can manifest itself in so many different ways. Each and every one of us have the ability to turn what inspires us into something precious and lasting. For me, it is writing stories.

To read about the landscape and circumstances that inspired my first novel, The Poet’s Wife, click here.

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2 replies
  1. AmaMaree Yoke
    AmaMaree Yoke says:

    I enjoyed “The girl and the Sunbird”. Your words took me on a journey I did new want to come back from. Thank you for writing it.

    • Rebecca Stonehill
      Rebecca Stonehill says:

      Hi AnneMaree, thank you so much for getting in touch. I am SO pleased that you enjoyed The Girl and the Sunbird, that is wonderful to hear. I am busy working on my 3rd novel now 🙂 Best wishes, Rebecca


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