Wednesday, November 3, 2010

A Kenyan Childhood Turned to Fiction

LeAnne Hardy: As we continue our celebration of one year of writing about international Christian fiction on this blog, let's take a look at someone who has been writing about Africa for a long time.  Shel Arensen grew up in Kenya and is a second generation missionary there.  His father, Ed Arensen, founded Today in Africa Magazine in the 1960s and Shel  was managing editor from 1981-1994 when he turned the magazine over to Kenyan editors he had trained. Shel still edits a history magazine called Old Africa. Shel has also written nine adventure stories for young people and an adult novel about a Third Culture Kid—one who has spent a significant part of his or her formative years in a culture different from the parents’ home culture.

Shel, how did you get interested in writing fiction? 

Part of the Arensen family when Shel was in seventh grade.
SA: As a young boy growing up in the 1960s, I watched my father involved in producing magazines and the process fascinated me. In sixth grade I remember writing a short adventure story in school about a shark attack on the Indian Ocean. In university I studied journalism and in 1977 I took a break from school and worked as a newspaper reporter in Alaska. This taught me the fundamentals of writing. But I really started writing fiction in 1985 when living in Oregon doing my master’s degree in journalism. I had three young sons and they missed Kenya. I missed Kenya. So I wrote my first children’s adventure novel, The Secret Oath, and read it to them chapter by chapter in the evenings so we wouldn’t be so homesick for Africa. It took nine years for that book to be published as the first in my Rugendo Rhino series.

LH:  I'm partial to The Rugendo Rhinos having first read it when my children were young.  How much of your own childhood or that of your children is in these stories?

SA: The Rugendo Rhino series is set in rural Kenya at a mission station much like the one where I grew up. As a young boy, three of my friends and I formed a club and built a tree house. We watched our fathers and mothers in their ministry to the church. My father was a publisher, another father was a doctor, another father was a builder, another father was a Bible school teacher. We also had Kenyan friends in the community around the mission station.  I could tell you the real story for about 80 per cent of the various scenes depicted in my books. Some are based on things that happened to me (falling off the top of a Land Rover), or to my children (bike diving into the river, climbing Mt Kenya) or my dog (trapped in a snare).  I take the real events I remember and weave them into the fictional plot. The result is a story that really did not happen, but could have happened. And the scenes in the story are true to life even though the story is fiction.  I don’t know if I have special ability to observe, but I have vivid memories of my years growing up in Kenya. Flying ants, the sticky mud when it rained, stinging nettles in the ravines, the trees, birds, the smell of the market, thieves stealing clothes off the clothesline, finding poacher’s snares in the forest. All these elements and more form the setting for the Rugendo Rhino books.

Shel on mom's lap (left of pole), Lake Victoria, circa 1957
LH:  Have your adult missionary experiences among the Dorobo people contributed as well?

SA: Yes, I used my relationships with the Dorobo people, where we have been planting churches for the past 19 years, to describe missionary work – learning language and culture, making friends, sharing Jesus with those who have never heard. The Poison Arrow Tree (book one in the Rugendo Rhino series) and The Runaway (set to be released by Word Alive in 2011) both describe missionary trips to the Dorobo living in the forest.

LH: Was it hard to interest an American publisher in a series of books set in Kenya?

SA: Yes. My first attempts to market my first two titles met with standard answers: No one wants to read about missionary kids and their friends in Kenya; and boys (my primary target audience) don’t read. But finally a publisher in Oregon who loved the outdoors gave the books to his son, who hated to read. His son read my manuscripts and loved them. The publisher (Questar, which later merged with Multnomah Books) said if I could add a third title, they would publish the series.  I quickly wrote a third book and the series was launched in 1994.

LH:  The books have been recently re-published by Word Alive, Nairobi, for Kenyan readers.  What adjustments did you make to target a different audience?

SA: Quite a few. To keep the price reasonable, I actually had to cut the books from 30,000 words down to 20,000 words. I also changed two characters who were North American missionary kids in the original books and reworked them as Kenyan boys. My editor also questioned various American slang phrases, which I had to adjust. We added a “List of Hard Words” to the end to help those reading English as their second (or third) language.

LH:  What do you hope for readers to get out of an adventure series like Rugendo Rhinos?

SA: First, I want to attract young boys and girls to enjoy reading. I feel the Rugendo Rhino books really capture a child’s interest and they are pulled in to find out what happens next. Through the books, I also show how children can make a difference by learning to pray, to trust in God when hard things happen.

LH:  How different was it writing your adult novel, Dust of Africa?

SA: The Dust of Africa dealt with how an MK manages the transition between cultures. This was a much more personal topic. I often struggle with knowing who I really am and where I really fit. Am I American just because I carry an American passport? I slip in the metaphor of dust at the beginning of the book. It took over ten years of fitful writing to complete the book. Sometimes I had to get away from it. Sometimes I wondered whether anyone really would read it. But I have enough friends who grew up “between worlds” as I did as well as four children. So in the end I determined to finish it and have it self-published to coincide with my daughter’s graduation from high school.

LH:  I imagine that you have met a lot of people who identify strongly with the emotions of your characters who are marked forever by their African experiences. 

SA:  Yes, one man wrote: I don’t know how you did it, but you wrote my story. Another asked in consternation: Did you get into the secret files from my missionary school in Africa? How did you know all those things I did? A woman wrote that after reading the first few pages, she had to put the book away. It evoked too many memories (feelings she thought she’d buried) of being left at a boarding school. But after several days she eventually picked up the book and finished it and said it helped her in processing her own life history.

LH:  What has been the response of black Kenyans to your writing?

SA: I met up with a young Kenyan girl in Nairobi who loves the Rugendo Rhinos and wants me to hurry and write some more. Another young boy was given the book Test of the Tribal Challenge, which describes a rite of passage called “The Twelve Tasks of Manhood.” His parents designed a rite of passage for him styled after the plot in the novel, including a climb up Mt Kenya.

LH: Have you met many African writers of inspirational fiction?

SA: I have worked with Mwaura Njoroge, who has written several novels about faith in the African context, exploring issues such as how to choose a marriage partner. We also co-wrote a historical about the controversy over female circumcision called Against the Traditions.  But there aren’t many African writers using the medium of inspirational fiction.

LH:  What do you have in the works that we can look forward to?

SA: The Rugendo Rhino series is contracted through nine titles, one brand new called The Runaway. I have a half-written murder mystery series called the Birder Murders about a group of bird watchers who solve mysterious murders using their knowledge of bird behavior. And I’m doing background research for a three or four book saga on the growth of Kenya as a nation drawing on memories of Africans, British settlers, Asians and missionaries.

LH:  I'm sure your work on Old Africa has given you lots of fascinating contacts for that  series.  We will look forward to it.  Thank you for sharing with us today.  May God use your writing to impact people in Kenya and beyond.


LeAnne Hardy's children attended boarding school on the same compound where many of Shel Arensen's books are set.   Her own books for young people come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will impact lives. Visit her at .


  1. Thanks so much for this introduction to Shel's work, LeAnne! Three of my sisters raised their families as MKs (one family in Senegal, Africa), plus my son-in-law is an MK, so I've heard a lot over the years about the difficult transition for Third Culture Kids. Wonderful interview. Thank you!

  2. Thank you for an interesting interview. I hope you finish The Birder Murders, Shel, they sound intriguing.

  3. MKs get such rich experiences of knowing different cultures intimately. I heard at a recent writers conference that missionary fiction is in. I'm glad.

  4. Interesting to find this site.
    I lived in Kenya in the late 70s & 80s during jr.high and high School.
    I was not a believer then, but got saved at age 23 in the U.S.
    I discovered Shel Arensen's books and read several to my children.
    Thanks for this interview and blog-post.