Saturday, September 18, 2010

The one where I dwell on Kwani?...

Indulge me for a second (or two) peeps...let's talk about reading in Kenya. I won't get all huffy about it. Promise.

I was looking at Friday's paper and they were talking about how
Kwani? wako down...that somewhere along that road of serving up samplings from the Kenyan world of literature, they got it wrong...

First, a quick side note: I admit, I'm no big fan of the Kwani? books. They have the feel of a high school set book. You know; those Lit class books you trudged through 'cause your English grade depended on it. And with the exception of The Government Inspector, there is no set book I'd touch just for the fun of it...Maybe Kwani? have a different sort of reader in mind? I don't know...

What majorly bugged me about the gloom & doom article was the way it went on and on about Kwani?'s shortcomings yet offered no insights on how to make reading for fun a cool thing in a country that is hardly (and sometimes looks down on) reading for leisure.

Let's start with the said paper; their Friday entertainment section has Tv shows, movie, music reviews and even a blog review (i never quite get). There is no book review. Go to their Sunday book review section for kids, and the reviews sound like they were just copy-pasted off book blurbs...Note, there is no YA book review for the teen reader. And yes, contrary to popular belief, there are Kenyan teen readers (for research help, ask books first for their notes. They've done their homework quite nicely).

You know what would have been really cool? If the said paper (which belongs to a pretty resourceful media house) would have teamed up with Kwani? and kicked off a fab nation-wide reading campaign...or a traveling book festival...

Maybe even help set up more libraries or support existing ones...

Hell, get parents and teachers to take initiative and encourage reading. I remember during my primary school days (once upon a time), our English and Kiswahili teachers set aside a weekly double lesson for reading. Sometimes it was a quiet solo reading session in the library, sometimes the teacher picked a book and made us read it out loud in turns (quite a hair raising affair), discussing its themes as we went along. Bear in mind, this was in small town schools and all were public schools with one exception. We were not tested on it. They were just sessions dedicated to exploring the world of literature. Period. I now salute these teachers...

In a nutshell, make books accessible to as many people (especially children) as possible. THEN write about it.

And you know what would be super cool? Serving Kenyans a kick ass book buffet.
From the classics, the deliciously serious (even tragic) to the fun...throw in African, Arabian, Asian, Aussie, Carribbean, British & American tales and histories...give us all sorts of genres and garnish it with quick reads and books for the reluctant reader...we want to enter a library or a bookstore and feel like a kid let loose in a candy store

And please don't be timid or obsessively rigid in your servings. As kids, Abunwasi, Anansi the spider and the Hare stories wowed us just as much as 1001 Arabian Nights and Enid Blyton's tales of the Faraway tree & Wishing chair. The Moses (Kibaya) series and pacesetters were on the same shelves as Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Secret Seven and we went through them all with zeal. As for Akokhan,...well, it's as bad ass as the Marvel & DC comics. We didn't care who the authors were, what prizes they won; we just loooved a good story, so much so, swapping books & comics became a ritual of sorts in the face of the game boy rage...

I don't know if all of my former classmates are still avid readers. I'm sure quite a number are not, and that's OK (although i wish they were)...But i do strongly believe, that we owe the younger generation a right; a right for them to discover and explore the world of books. If they grow up and say reading for fun is not their thing, then so be it. But never let them say they never knew or experienced the oh so magical world of books. We owe them that much.


Because books teleport us into a realm where you get to peek into other worlds, cultures, religions, other people's experiences, hopes, fears, wishes and dreams. And if you're lucky, you may even get to battle a troll or vamp and still be back home in time for supper. Books can help fight ignorance and hate, teach us about love, friendship and the power of believing in ourselves...soothe despair just a smidge and bring comic relief. They nurture the imagination which in turn lends substance, color and oomph to dreams and ideas...and we do know how these shape and transform the world we live in don't we?...

Perhaps reading campaigns and funding public libraries may not be the most commercially viable projects but it is the right thing to do. And sometimes, that's all the reason we need.

Mob wendos,



  1. Hey Nyambura!

    Well my take on Kwani? is a bit different. i don't think they have the set book feel but I feel they are prepared in such a way to attract a very specific audience. And its content is certainly mostly alternative, and adult.

    As for the reading culture I blame those who create our educational curricula. Most of the time they are working in cahoots with the publishers so its actually the publishers deciding what the kids are going to read. That's why perhaps Shakespeare made a comeback in them setbooks yet we have so many good literary works that have been made in the past decade by local writers that we can all relate to gathering dust somewhere.

  2. I totally agree with this piece!!!!!

  3. @ WP: I feel being restricted to read certain books, written by certain authors is just not cool...I don't mind Shakespeare ; getting the hang of the old English was hell for me, but I totally loved his storos (aaaall that drama)...
    I don't think our education system is solely to blame though. Like I pointed out, I had primary school teachers who went the extra mile when they didn't have to & they were part of that system...we as individuals need to take initiative too. How many Kenyan parents buy toys AND a story book for their kids? These days there are awesome second hand book sellers who sell books for a 100 bob per book...

    @ Beth, glad we get the same pic...

  4. Off to explore kwani.

    Hope you're doing well madam.

  5. Yeah I get, I get, ever watched Romeo + Juliet? It changes the setting of the original story to a much more modern day one at Verona Beach and the families are two well known gangs. The cast alone is mind blowing let alone the script...

    the funny thing is that the very teachers that we have were educated in the very same system they are now part of so it will take a really DIFFERENt teacher to try and explore outside the narrow sylabii and give our kids some more exposure. Its now a vicious cycle really...

  6. Nyambura you're so spot on it's eerie! When in primary, our teachers got our folkes to buy us 5 books apiece for reading over the holidays. I couldn't think of a more torturous way to spend my time and I really hated them for it.

    But as I had to write something on each of the books when school opened, I started reading ... and never stopped. I think those teachers gave me and my ilk the best gift anyone could have.

    I agree with you 100%

  7. Hey Digzer, true true. I'm counting my lucky stars that i encountered such teachers. Let's all try pass on the fun reading lifestyle to your kids, nieces, nephews etc :-)

  8. The problem with the Kwani? journals are they have nothing memorable in terms of fiction. Nothing very exciting. The short stories are too intellectual. They lack a sense of story and drama. Somebody needs to scream to them that sometimes readers like to be entertained.

  9. @ Jabber, you're quite right...i think they forget that a simple or even fun story can be just as profound as an intellectual one. Take the books written by Dr. Seuss; They are fun and seem to be kid's stuff, but the messages in them applies even to adults...perfect example "oh, the places you will go," ...

  10. i was in uganda for a while in a small town, called mityana, electricity was a random occurence, there was no piped water, it was generally very shagsy. then like midway through my stay a local library was opened. it had all these amazing titles, books i had always wanted to read and available for free. nothing in nairobi comes close except the book vendors for 100/=. and have you ever noticed how quickly a crowd builds up around them. reading is very punitive in kenya where a good book costs 1,500 and a movie 50. i would love to see an initiative for getting books in the hands of kenyans. sometimes i feel the yearning is there just not the product.

  11. Shuhi just put up a post with a link to this blog and I'm glad I stopped by.

    On fostering a reading really is easier than most people make it out to be. And this has nothing to do with the curriculum being taught.

    I started telling bedtime stories to my daughter when she was 2 years old. At age 3, i begun to read them to her. By the time she was 5, she had a thirst to learn to read the stories for herself and discover the worlds therein.

    My folks didn't read to me...but they made sure there were lots of age appropriate books within easy reach. So i grew up reading most of the authors you mentioned above. And I hope i have been able to transfer the same to the tyke.

    Thanks for sharing.

  12. God bless you Sam, you just made me tear up. someone who takes the time to read to their kid is truly special...and seeing kids reading & getting excited about books is just priceless...give her a kiss for me