Friday, August 30, 2013

What Ails Kenyan Literature (Part 7) - Myth of ‘No reading culture’


‘A book is the only place in which you can examine a fragile thought without breaking it, or explore an explosive idea without fear it will go off in your face…It is one of the few havens remaining where a man’s mind can get both provocation and privacy.’ – Edward P. Morgan

‘I’m mad about good books,
Can’t get my fill…’
- Frank Sinatra, ‘How About You?’ (song)

Shortly after I arrived in Nairobi in 2001, I made the mistake of letting a neighbor in South ‘C’ know that I was an aspiring author. The neighbour shook his head as if someone had died and said, ‘Kenyans don’t buy books. The only things they buy are beer and condoms.’ I, of course, ignored him and in any case, he has a history of getting things dead wrong. During, the 2003 General Elections, for example, this same genius said – through an alcoholic haze – ‘Kibaki will never be President!’ (Actually, Kibaki went on to become President for two consecutive terms).

Drunkards aside, there is a myth that has been perpetuated for as long as I can remember. It goes something like this: ‘There is no reading culture in Kenya’. It also takes other forms, during discourse, such as ‘Kenyans don’t read.’

But it’s a myth.

Actually, Kenyans are some of the best-read people anywhere. Kenyans love a book. Many
average middle- and lower middle-class homes have a home library. Some suburban homes
have collections that would rival small libraries. When I enter such a home, I usually wonder: ‘Have they read all those books?’

I have seen Kenyans reading novels in schools, recreation parks, buses, matatus, at work stations (instead of doing what they’re paid for!) and in one bizarre instance, a man was reading a Tom Clancy while walking! In high school, novels were basically contrabands but that didn’t stop us from reading them every chance we got, especially during the evening ‘prep’ time. One night, we had a power blackout when my best friend was in the middle of a James Hadley Chase. So caught up was he that he borrowed a box of matches from an (illegal) smoker and would strike a match, read a few lines, strike another match and so on!

‘A teacher who is attempting to teach without inspiring the pupil with a desire to learn is hammering on cold iron.’ - Horace Mann

The problem is that students in Kenya (from primary school all the way to tertiary institutions) are encouraged to simply ‘cram’ for exams. They’re not taught to embrace knowledge or befriend books. The emphasis is on passing your (final) exam by hook or by crook. This culture fosters inventive cheating methods and, in tertiary institutions, sex-for-marks arrangements with lecturers.

Many high schools in Kenya have the culture of ‘academic fires’ whereby boarding students make a bonfire of their exercise books (and other unwanted books) on their last night in school. It’s a bad habit because their education is NOT over - if anything, it’s just beginning. But all that ‘cramming’ makes them long for the day they’ll be free of (text) books. Some of them end up with a genuine hatred for books (because they equate them with mental torture). Needless to say, intellectual literary commentators accentuate the problem by invoking the ghost of ‘no reading culture’ because, like the ‘literary desert’ premise, it makes good discourse for intellectuals (what else are English professors going to talk about? How to make the perfect omelette? The sex lives of Hollywood stars?) Schools, publishers and the Ministry of Education need to market books to students as reliable sources of information on any topic under the sun. One way to do this is to flood school libraries with compelling ‘supplementary reading’ materials. Let them learn about wildlife, mythology, space, machines, philosophy, famous people, religions, ancient
history, the sea (For example: Did you know that the largest forests and highest mountains are underwater?) Let them seek books after they graduate in order to learn more about topics that pique their interest. All this ‘cramming’ for exams, day and night, makes them think that intensive reading is a phase you have to go through on your way to adulthood.

To show how strong the reading culture is, the two main newspapers in the country, The Daily Nation and the East African Standard, are read by several MILLION Kenyans every single day. The Sunday Nation and Sunday Standard are read by a couple more million than the dailies. It is actually insulting to tell people, ‘You have no reading culture’, when they are reading newspapers by the million in addition to all the other reading they will do on any given day (work documents, e-mails, magazines, books, newsletters, flyers, posters, Bible/Quran, speeches etc). We also have book clubs such as the True Love Book Club,23 book festivals such as the Kwani Litfest and the Story Moja Hay Festival, numerous ‘Spoken Word Poetry’ sessions all over the country and the ever-expanding Nairobi International Book Fair. In a recent survey on Internet usage, it emerged that two of the big reasons Kenyans websurf is to read newspapers and to read books (in that order). While ‘to read books’ was #12 on the list (far behind E-mail, Social Networking, Job Search, Academic Research and others), I am surprised that it would feature at all in a nation that supposedly has ‘no reading culture.’

To be fair, formal education came with the European missionaries and colonialists so until
recent decades, there wasn’t much of a ‘reading culture’. To illustrate, out of my four grand parents, two were illiterate and the literate ones had the equivalent of a Standard Two education of today. My parents, on the other hand, were not just literate, they were career teachers. In the last six or so decades, both the Kenyan population and the literacy level have risen dramatically. And with primary education now being free for all, the literacy level is set to rise even higher. The market for literature is bigger than ever!