Street bookstore

“If you want to hide something from a Kenyan, put it in a book,” has been a favourite when it comes to lines used to mock Kenyans’ reading culture. There have been articles and television interviews done on the subject in a bid to unravel this mystery. Popular causes suggested for this affliction include our education system that makes literature a cramming competition for examinations and our general apathy when it comes to literature. I suppose we all know someone whose last read was their K.C.S.E. set book? Or perhaps, that someone is even you.

Publishers, elitists and the government have been some of the culprits who have been singled out for allowing Kenyan literature to go to the dogs. ‘The Kenyans Don’t Read Battalion’ is what I like to call these soldiers of literature that have specialized in pointing out every single thing that is wrong with the Kenyan literature scene. I agree that we could do more and it’s obvious that we are lagging behind as compared to other African countries. Our publishers are mostly publishing textbooks, most of our writers are published overseas and the spotlight is hardly shone on our writers that do well. Still, the battalion is telling only half the story.

Take a stroll down Moi Avenue and Tom Mboya Street especially on a weekday afternoon, and you will find street booksellers conducting their business. Plenty of potential customers will probably be going through the book collection with some purchasing up to five books. The books go for as little as fifty shillings and the collections are usually very good. You’ll find anything from the Mills and Boon romance novels to classics from Jane Austen. The fact that the street booksellers are there day in and out and are increasing in number, shows that business is booming. Business would not be booming if some Kenyans were not ardent readers!

The blogosphere is experiencing massive growth with some Kenyan bloggers retaining an impressive following. Sure, some of the content is a bit questionable, but generally there is an output of interesting and relevant content that has Kenyans online clicking. There is content available on Kenyan food, business, tech, agriculture, fashion and entertainment and literature in the form of short stories and poems. The interest in blogging and bloggers is another sure sign that Kenyans are reading.

Perhaps then the conversation shouldn’t be on whether Kenyans are reading or not, but on ways that reading materials can be made more available to the ordinary Kenyan. Perhaps Kenyans weren’t buying books because the ones available were expensive and now with the advent of street booksellers as well as accessible online content, they are able to read more. ‘The Kenyans Don’t Read Battalion’ should refocus its energies on pushing for the availability of books for Kenyans especially at the grassroots level. It is unacceptable that there are children who have no access to books in school or even within their community.

I believe Kenyans read and if given a conducive environment, will continue to read.

First published in the Nairobian – Issue No. 5: March 29-April 4, 2013

6 thoughts on “Given the right books at the right price, Kenyans actually read

  1. Also a large group (especially students and those just getting their bearing in the working class scene) feeds from e-books, scanned books, typed books, stuff in software generally. We are reading. We just don’t have the money to buy the books… yet.

  2. A timely article. Something that Africa Creates Radio Show is trying to do is highlight African talent, including writers who live and publish here. We need to support our local writers and publishers as they bravely attempt to enter an industry dominated by the New York Bestseller authors and publishers (on which there are very few if any Africans).

  3. I had to rush back to this post after realising that the books are slowly vanishing in the streets. We may choose to blame the rains that could destroy the books, but then again, we have watches raining in town and are now the reigning sell for as little as 200 bob. Are Nairobians actually readers or were they? Are they now time keepers or are they trying to be? Or are they just catching up with ‘trends’?

  4. As I have learnt in my business class recently, to offer a solution to a problem, (and well, reading is a problem for Kenyans, lest not forget I am a Kenyan too), you’ve got to find the source resulting event of the problem. This where I remember reading used to be for the smart ones in the academia, and not the so smart (ones who couldn’t ace ’em tests to score a good grade), this where it all started.

    The “so smart ones” loved the read, and shared, and talked of the experience. Rubbing it on the face of an already knowing kid, that he’s not so good at reading, neitheir in the academia, and this is where spite of reading began. It’s said where there is light there MUST be darkness, this is the “MUST” effect you witness today in the country’s reading culture. As there is ying, and yang, there have been, and shall be love, and love for the books.

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