I am trying to write this while drowning out the sound of engines roaring in the background. A building which neighbours my house is being torn down and fortunately for me, my room overlooks the site. To add sugar to the already sweet treat I have the pleasure of consuming, my new neighbours are having some changes done to their house and I share a wall with them. Dust, grime, noise, thumping of hammers against what appears to feel like my skull and a lot of concrete scenery is my lot. Fortune is smiling down upon me with a wide grin stretched just a tad bit too thin.
Yesterday while shopping at a new mall in Nairobi I purchased two books from a local store. Something that fascinated me however, was the fact that one of the supermarkets in the mall had a children’s book section. There was fantasy, bed time stories and the likes. Think Enid Blyton. But there was nothing by a local writer.
Upon entering a different book store which has both text books for school and other works which are more entertainment based I began my slow journey from one shelf to another. It always fascinates me to enter a book store. Each title is captivating and the colorful covers draw me in and make me want to settle my mind into the pages and fall head over heels into a new story. Will I be in Romania or Nigeria? Are there animals or concrete jungles? My love for books has been present ever since I was a little girl. From Harry Potter to Daniel Steele novels. Ranging from Khalili Gibran to Binyavanga Wainaina and throw in some Dan Brown too – I like a good read. But I cannot stand a criminal investigation novel even if my life depended on reading it.
Coming to the interesting part of my book bonanza, I was very disappointed with the lack of novels written by African authors on the shelf, save for a few Chimamanda collections. Kenyan authors deserve a space of their own, if not an entire shelf at least. I looked through another branch of the same book store in a different mall located in Nairobi. And the respect locally published novels recieved included being housed on a lonely rack somewhere, facing its back towards the display window and the books were coated heavily in dust.
First off, this is simply ridiculous because if we do not promote our own talent and move it forward how can we hope for the world to do the same. It saddens me to think of how much effort it takes to write, edit and publish an entire book, just to have it sitting all lonesome on a dusty rack watching its European counterparts sitting comfortably on polished wooden stands wrapped lovingly in clear plastic to prevent wear and tear.
It has come to my attention that the reading culture in Kenya is not what it should be. The youth, let alone my fellow college mates, would rather watch a video online or read tweets churned by KOT as opposed to engaging their minds in a good book. I will admit, that in order to get to this particular audience e-books need to be made available so that they are easily accessible. That is the next logical chapter in Kenyan publishing. And an exciting one indeed. However, I believe that if the mainstream media were to promote reading within the Kenyan youth especially with regards to works produced locally, it would do a world of good for the consumer and the producer.
I learnt things about Kenya from Binyavanga’s “Discovering Home” published by the Kwani Trust, which I would have never been able to learn from a video on YouTube.
It would be better to inculcate a reading culture in the youth from a young age. Books can open up a world of new possibilities and foster so many qualities within young readers. Kenya is growing economically but so is the gap between the “have’s” and “have not’s”. There is a vibant and thriving middle class here which is drawing in international investors and companies looking to expand their business after identifying the existence of a market which is willing to indulge. From fast food chains to make up stores, there are booming businesses which have a global presence that are looking to come into (and many already are) the East African region.
But if the world is coming to us, we must consider – What are we taking out into the world? That is a broad question, but looking at the publishing industry specifically we must sit up and pay attention to what is in our hands. Those screens and fancy gadgets are affordable for the middle class readers who can buy e-books online. A great big chunk of local society is then left out. Print books still have a place here in Kenya. Let us spread the pages of local works wide and let everyone come have a read and keep with them the lessons and pass on the book to another brother or sister. Let it include everyone.
After all, that is what a good book does. It opens itself up to the reader, allowing one to nestle deep into its bosom and resurface nourished with some knowledge regardless of who the reader is and what hand life has dealt him or her so far.