At long last. I have returned. The words came back. Or they never left. They had just refused to leave my mind. But I have read. I may not have written but I have read. It’s something, right? I mean, people are out here wasting their time writing epics and rescuing children from hurricanes but the real heroes are those of us who have spent their days sleeping, internetting (it’s a word, leave me alone) and reading.
What did I read, you ask? A Kenyan book. A book written by a Kenyan. Two of them actually. Do you realize how uncharacteristic that is? Haya, let me explain. The last time I read a Kenyan book from beginning to end I was probably 12 years old. The last time I read a Kenyan book from beginning to end and enjoyed it I was probably 11.
When I was in primary school we used to have Open Day. What many people would call Parents’ Day. So our parents would make their way to school early on the designated Saturday morning, usually with us in tow. We are four kids and we all went to that school. There were at least three of us there every year between 2001 and 2009–when one went to high school another one entered primary school. So my parents were always braced for a long day on Open Day. Okay, to be fair they were always braced for a long day throughout all our childhoods. Raising kids is hard.
But on Open Day they had to get us all ready and be in school by 9 am when things kicked off. We would start with whoever’s class teacher wasn’t too busy. You sit and wait your turn to see the class teacher, which could take anywhere between ten minutes and an hour. Of course if you knew your teacher would have anything but kind words for you then that time was spent in prayer. And then because my parents are so very education-oriented and will take no nonsense from you when it comes to grades and class discipline, we would end up taking 40 minutes with the teacher and getting bad looks from the parents waiting in line. My mother was there analyzing the grades (Why did you drop from 96% to 92%? A whole 4 marks? It doesn’t matter that those are only two questions you missed. And how can you get a strong A in Social Studies and then a B+ in Kiswahili? Kwani haujui kuongea Kiswahili na vile unapenda kuongea? No, no, this is unacceptable.) and my father was there finding out all the ways that improvements could be made (So Mwalimu, you’ve said she will improve in maths if she sits at the front? And who is her current deskmate? Is she answering enough questions in class? You know this one does not like to talk in class and the way she talks at home.).
Kwanza the way my brother, Kevin, was one of those children who could not just sit still and concentrate on one thing, his class was usually the last and took longest. I’m telling you parenting is hard. And ati my parents should have split ways and done a class each so that it takes a shorter time? Please. That is for parents who have not yet decided whether or not they want to be parents. Both of them had to be there in each class, with exceptions only made for when they were really pressed for time. We will never be able to say that our parents were not involved in our lives.
Anyway so after hours and hours, and lunch time had come and gone, and the school was almost empty because other parents were done by 11 am, there was always one thing that made it all worthwhile. There would always be books on sale. It was one of the highlights of the school term for me. They were going for about 200 or 300 shillings, money that did not cause my mother actual physical pain when she removed it from her pocket. I would go home with three or four books and the rest of the day went by quickly as I immersed myself in Sasa Sema Publications books. You know those ones that were short biographies, sijui Mekatilili wa Menza and Field Marshall Muthoni? Halafu the comics like Manywele? God. Good times.
I enjoyed those books. They were well made, they didn’t have a million typos, the graphics were good. And they were books written by Kenyans. The Kenyan publishing industry may have its many faults but in providing books for school age children, I believe they have done a good job.
So it’s pretty unfortunate that once you’re a bit too old for those ones there isn’t much else. Which is why we moved on to Sweet Valley High when we were done with the ones on sale on Open Day. There wasn’t anywhere else to go. When I was a bit older, I would enter bookshops and find that almost every Kenyan book was a self-help book. Those motivational ones that all end up sounding the same somewhere just before the middle. They were all so badly done. Typos. Poor printing. Ugly graphics. Weird fonts and spacing. I lost hope pretty quickly. That was that. We moved beyond the borders after that and began relying mostly on Western fiction. Of course there were kina Ngugi wa Thiong’o type but it wasn’t nearly enough. I haven’t read a Kenyan-made book since then, except for my textbooks and high school set books.
Recently I had a conversation with someone about the books we read. More specifically about the current interest in ‘African Literature’. For me and this my friend, almost all the money we had for books we spent on these titles by African writers. We are catching up, I guess, on all the years we missed out on them because we only read American books or we didn’t read at all because high school. When it came to it, it emerged that when we said African literature, in our minds, Kenyan literature wasn’t included. We just didn’t think about it that way. And when we asked each other whether we had not just read but bought Kenyan books in the last five or six years, the answer for both of us was no.
We are not doing right by our own. We’re all over the place saving coins (students are poor) so that we can pass by Prestige Bookshop or hit up the Magunga Bookstore or look for the nearest Inama bookshop so that we can read books written by our own. Weirdly, ‘our own’ doesn’t seem to include Kenyans. And it’s not that Kenyan books are bad, as I have found out this last month. Phenomenal improvements have been made since I was 12 but I still haven’t bought a book written by a Kenyan. Who will read our stories then?
We need to do better. I need to do better. I need to get me a list of fantastic books by Kenyans. And I need to ask you guys to do the same. Maybe next week I’ll get round to telling you which Kenyan books I’ve been reading, which is actually what I started writing to say. But don’t come here telling me to start with Dust by Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor. I have it. I have tried. That book requires willpower that I have not yet accumulated. You should absolutely read it though. I hear it’s amazing.