I am 7 years old and at night I pull my net down and around my bed. My parents are very strict about this, malaria is real. I do not do it well but I am not worried because my father will be by later to fix it. I get under the covers with a heavy collection of children’s Bible Stories and my mother’s copy of Nairobi Law. I start with the law magazine because it is shorter and flip through the pages. I will not find out what the word jurisprudence means for another twelve years, and I can barely read it. But this doesn’t matter; I only want the words to sing me to sleep.
I am 9 years old and in school, I share a desk with a boy who spends every lesson doodling on his exercise books. He draws cars, mostly, but also men with guns and no shirts. I don’t think much of it; most boys in my class are convinced they can draw and they all draw cars and men with guns. Some are better than others, but nobody has taken the drawing seriously enough to tell them that they are no good, and so they can imagine that they are good at it. When we have a free lesson, and my desk mate goes to sit on his friends’ desks and ‘make noise’, I take out a book from my bag. I place it on my lap, rest my head on the desk and read. I look like I’m sleeping. The bell rings 40 minutes later and I don’t hear it. I only realize how much time has gone by when a hush falls over the class and the teacher who has just walked in to find a class full of noisemakers has began to call some boys to the front to kneel down. It’s always boys, maybe one or two girls sometimes. These girls, I will later notice, are always chastised for being ‘rowdy’—like boys—and I will think nothing of it because really, they are kind of like boys, and boys are the ones always getting into trouble. I cannot understand why anybody would want to behave ‘like a boy’. But now, I quietly put my Mary-Kate and Ashley away, a little upset that Mr. Njoroge had to walk in right at that part of the story. I am not worried though; I will finish it at lunch time, or later on in the bus on the ride home.
I am 11 years old and distraught that my friend Leila is transferring schools. We used to be best friends you know. I will miss her big laughter and I will always remember that Wednesday when she poured a plate of ndengu on Tito’s head because he insulted her. And Tito, with ndengu soup dripping from his head and soaking through his red t-shirt, yelled the F-word and that was the most scandalous thing our Class Five eyes had ever seen. Mostly though, I am distressed that Leila is leaving because she is my main book supplier. She has the books that my mother does not buy and every time she is bought a new book, she finishes it in a day and gives it to me. Sometimes we would talk about who our favorite character in the Baby-sitters Club was, or which twin we preferred between Elizabeth and Jessica Wakefield of Sweet Valley High. Sometimes, she would say how much a Goosebumps book did not scare her, and I would smile and listen, and wonder whether she would mock me if I told her that sometimes I couldn’t sleep because I kept imagining all sorts of headless, bloody creatures when I closed my eyes. But most of our friendship is based on the exchange of books; that feeling of anticipation when you see the other lost in a new book and you know that it will soon be in your hands. I am upset by her leaving because my mother doesn’t buy me quite as many books as her mother buys her, and who will now provide me with the books that my parents refuse to buy because they are ‘too adult for an eleven-year old?’ During her last weeks in school, she gives me a bracelet made of shells and shows me that she has her own. We are not sappy or emotional about it—our friendship was never like that. I smile and wonder if she remembers that we ‘broke up’ and stopped being best friends in Class Two because I was thirsty and she refused to give me her water.
I am 13 years old and in boarding school for the first time. I want to be here, against my mother’s wishes. She thinks that Class Seven is too early, and that I should have gone the next year. But everybody is going and I am unwilling to miss out on whatever will happen this year. I have no novels with me, also for the first time. I have not carried them because I am certain that they will get stolen, and I would rather have them and not be able to read them than not have them at all. Later, I will realize that I am not allowed to have books with me anyway. It’s not that it’s against the rules. It’s that I have entered a phase in my life where I can only read textbooks, and if I am found reading fictional material, it can be confiscated in order to allow me to focus on school work. At least that is what I will be told. I do not read this year. Or the next. I get into bed and fall right asleep, mentally exhausted, emotionally unaware of the changes happening to me. In class, I am bent over Jesma test papers and KCPE exam booklets. When would I have had time to read anyway? One term, we have one library lesson arranged by Mr. Muchami and we troop towards the library in Senior School. We run into the head teacher on our way there and the idea of ‘candidates’ wasting a full lesson in the library repulses him. He teaches math, you see. He orders us back to our classroom, makes us stand in a line at the front of the class, and half insults us, half censures us. The whole lesson. I cannot imagine how going to the library is a bigger waste of time than this. I am unable to respect him fully for the rest of the year, and know that I will cringe a little for the rest of my life every time I hear his name.
I am 15 and I know that my reading will never be quite the same as it was before I went to boarding school. It can never be ‘voracious’. Form Ones have library lessons as part of their timetable but I am not excited about them. It does not help that the books in the tiny library are the same old, dusty ones that the rich kids of Highlands read in the 1950s. Two of my friends skip the library lessons altogether and stay in class eating Indomie noodles and kachumbari. In the library, I envy them a little, and nod off with the rest of my classmates till the bell rings to signal lunch time. During the holidays my cousin lends me a novel by Karen Kingsbury. I have never heard of her. I read it within two days and wonder why. Why I have never heard of her or of a genre called Christian fiction. I am excited and begin to look for more of her books. More of those books. I discover Biblica bookshop. I discover that during Christmas time they sell their novels at 50% off and I buy four, frustrated that I don’t have enough money to buy more. I go back to school for Form Two with one, so I can reread it. I lend it to a friend who lends it to a friend who lends it to a friend. I cannot trace it afterwards. Later, I see three of my classmates each reading bits of a book. When I ask, I am told that they tore up one romance novel into five different sections and each reads a section then exchanges it when they are done for another section, and so on until you have read the whole book, and that the other two sections are in another class. I cannot understand it, and I feel sick wondering whether whoever has my novel has done the same thing to it. And how do you even understand the story if you don’t begin at the beginning and end at the end? Unless they were reading the romance novel for reasons other than the story…I vow never to bring a novel to school again.
I am 19 years old and dating for the first time. My boyfriend does not tell me outright that he cannot remember the last time he read a novel; that he barely even read his high school set books. He tells me instead that he likes a certain kind of books and even though I see through it, I do not tell him this. He shows genuine surprise when he realizes that I always have a book in my bag, and I smile because I am used to that reaction. I let him follow me into bookshops and try to act interested as I go through the shelves, pick a book, read the blurb, get excited, see the price, make a face and sadly put it back down, and move on to the next one. He laughs with me when we see titles such as ‘How to Beat Your Wife…and other lies that the devil tells’. He puts an arm around me when I walk out empty-handed and upset, and promises to soon buy me all the books I want. He listens to me talk about books he has never read or heard of, and I listen and laugh when he tells me that he used to read Harry Potter until his mother got rid of them because of the witchcraft in the books. No son of hers would feed on the devil’s lies. He begins to look up on Google the books I am reading, just so he can follow when I talk about them. Later, I will see the pride in his eyes as he tells other people how much I read and they give the same reaction that he gave at first. And he will see the happiness in mine when he tells me that apart from Harry Potter, he also read the Chronicles of Narnia series and liked it. He gets me a book for Valentine’s Day and I know that I want to keep this one.
I am 21 years old Inama bookshops are a blessing. It’s difficult and a bit stressful to look for a title you want when all of Nairobi is milling about you on the street, and when there is the ever-present awareness that you are in a city where you could get robbed and only find out when you get home. But it is worth it and I clutch my bag, hold it close to my chest, and sift through dusty, second-hand books. Some days they are sold at 30 bob when the Inama guys are clearing their stock, and on those days I end up carrying home some books that I didn’t even really want but had to take because, I mean, 30 bob??! I am a university student and always broke. Sometimes, I spend my lunch money for the whole week buying books…or buying a book. Prestige bookshop can really kick you when you’re already down. I go there anyway, sometimes twice a week, even when I have absolutely no money to spend. I go with Imali and an hour goes by quickly as we go through Ben Okri and Chimamanda and Taiye Selasi and talk about a time when we will come here and leave with as many books as we want. One time we ask one of the attendants why they couldn’t just start a library instead of a bookshop because students want books too. The attendant, a man with light skin and a friendly face, tells us that you would need at least 30 million shillings to even start a library. I turn to Imali and ask, ‘So where are we going to get 30 million shillings?’ I begin to read books in soft copy. I do not like it, I much prefer having the physical book in my hands and turning the pages myself and using bookmarks and closing the book in a sad kind of satisfaction when I’m done. But my wallet cannot support my appetite and I must find ways to live above my means. I send and receive books in pdf format on email and shrug it off when guilt begins to gnaw at me because how will writers get paid as much as they deserve when we are sending their books to each other on email or on Whatsapp? But I send them anyway because I do not know what else to do. I fantasize about having a library in my house when I move out of home. I save on my phone photos of well-designed bookshelves. I spend time writing book reviews and create an account on Goodreads. And when night comes, I pull my net around my bed, get under the covers with a book and let the words sing me to sleep.