Kenda Mutongi

Kenda Mutongi

On Leave 2018-2019


Kenda Mutongi was born and raised in a small village in western Kenya and earned a PhD in African history from the University of Virginia. She is a social and cultural historian of postcolonial Africa; her work is interdisciplinary, and combines ethnographic research with narrative history in order to uncover the often-overlooked struggles of the lives of Africans.

Mutongi is the author of MATATU: A History of Popular Transportion in Nairobi (University of Chicago Press, 2017); and Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2007), which received an Honorable Mention from the African Studies Association’s Melville J. Herskovits Award for the best scholarly book on Africa in all disciplines. She has also published articles in the main African studies journals.

Her current project focuses on the history of secondary schooling in Kenya. The study focuses on post-colonial Kenya but also looks back to the turn of the twentieth century when the first schools were established in Kenya. The study will help provide a picture of what it has been like for the students to grow up in a Kenya that is buffeted by all the fears, expectations, and contradictions of a new African nation.

Mutongi has been a Member at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard, and at the Netherlands Institute for Advanced Study in Amsterdam. She has also received grants from the NEH, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.

Mutongi has served as chair of the Africana Studies and the Africa/Middle Eastern Studies Programs at Williams, and is on the editorial boards of several journals in African Studies. She teaches a wide range of courses in the history of 19th and 20th century Africa.

Selected Publications


MATATU:  A History of Popular Transportation in Nairobi (University of Chicago Press, March 2017) Winner of the 2018 Hagley Prize awarded to the best book in Business History (broadly defined) and consists of a medallion and $2,500.

Worries of the Heart: Widows, Family, and Community in Kenya (University of Chicago Press, 2007) Finalist, Melville J. Herskovits, Honorable Mention Award, 2008, awarded by the African Studies Association for the best scholarly book on Africa, in any discipline.


“Thugs or Entrepreneurs? Perceptions of Matatu Operators in Nairobi, 1970 to the Present,” Africa, 76, 4 (2006)

“Dear Dolly’s Advice: Representations of Youth, Courtship, and Sexualities in Africa, 1960-80,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, 1, 2 (2000). REPRINTED in Lynn Thomas and Jennifer Cole. Eds. Love in Africa (University of Chicago Press, 2009) and in Chi-Chi Undichie, et al. ed. Old Wineskins, New Wine: Readings in Sexuality in sub-Saharan Africa (Oxford University Press, 2010)

“Worries of the Heart”: Widowed Mothers, Daughters, and Masculinities in Western Kenya, 1940-60,” Journal of African History, 1, 3 (1999). REPRINTED in Andrea Cornwall. Ed. Readings in Gender in Africa (Oxford University Press, 2005)

“Women and Culture in Africa and the Middle East: A Review Article,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 23, 4 (1998)

Research Interests

Modern Africa, Political Economy, Transport Culture, Urban History, Gender

Theses Advised

Charles Crawford, 10Breaking with the Past: How the Rwandan State and its Military Moved the Land of a Thousand Hills Beyond Genocide

Robert Bland, ’07Seeing Like an Empire: The Uganda Railway and the Failure of the British Mission in Kenya, 1888-1923 [Co-advisor]

Program Connections at Williams

Africana Studies

International Studies

Political Economy