“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