Saturday, June 30, 2018

The Children’s Book Market In Kenya

Publishers out to burst the myth that Kenyans don’t read

By Alexander Nderitu
School children reading books in Kenya (Photo: Story Moja)
The children’s book market in Kenya, East Africa’s most vibrant economy, has enormous potential but is currently being hampered by various challenges, including government regulation and poor distribution. Regulation comes in the form of the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD), a state corporation, whose core mandate is to develop school curricula (below university level) and vet both the school text-books as well as “support materials” that are read in schools.

“Most children's books that parents buy are ‘readers’ from lists approved by KICD,” says Ben Shilolo, the sub-editor of Sage magazine. “KICD gives guidelines on developing these stories, which include themes, length of sentences and story, vocabulary and so on. The problem is that authors do not have freedom to be creative. For example, if a word such as ‘peace’ is suggested, authors struggle to fit in.”
Primary education is free here, which makes the school market highly lucrative because each year the gov’t has to purchase over Kshs 10 billion worth of “teaching material”. In 2016, for example, the gov’t distributed 4.8 million textbooks to more than 20,000 public primary schools under the Tusome Project alone. But to be able to get a piece of this pie, publishers have to comply with KICD guidelines. “Books creatively written without these guidelines in mind,” Shilolo continues, ‘may not be approved, meaning parents will not buy. And, if you force the story to fit into KICD guidelines, it is watered down and becomes less interesting.”

It is important to note that KICD’s policies are not draconian or punitive – just limiting. KICD doesn’t ban or discourage independent publishing of children’s books or YA material but they do act as gate-keepers to the largest market segment for Kenyan literature - school children. “There are no exclusive children's bookshops because parents ‘only’ buy books that are listed (by KICD) and recommended by teachers rather than browse for books with children,’ says Muthoni Garland, a Caine Prize-nominated author and founder of an innovative publishing house called Story Moja.

KICD are quite open about their “research-based curricula development” process. They invite “internal and external customer complaints” via telephone or their online presence and have been giving regular updates, on the new curriculum they are currently developing, on social media using the hashtag: #CurriculumReformsKE. “In the new curriculum, Digital Literacy will be instilled in the learners from the Pre-Primary level,” ran one update. “It is aimed at encouraging learners to be innovative/creative and this will help them to effectively use information that is channeled through any digital platforms.”

Publishers as also still reeling from a recent 16% tax levy slapped on all educational materials - including books - that the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) had vehemently opposed. Not only does it raise the cost of books but is also seen as a “tax on knowledge.” Then KPA chairman, David Waweru, advised the gov’t that, being the biggest buyer of books, it would actually be taxing itself, but to no avail. (The current KPA Chair is Lawrence Njagi of Mountain Top Publishers). “The cost of production is high,” says Betty Karanja, a veteran publisher. “Made worse by VAT on books. Children's (story) books are also not reaching the intended user. Most schools and parents and even publishing houses invest more on text books.” Longhorn is the only publishing house listed on the Nairobi Stock Exchange. Betty also observes that while there are no exclusive children’s bookstores, most major bookshops – like Text Book Centre and Bookstop - do have dedicated sections for children's books.

Gov’t regulation, however, is not the only obstacle to expanding the children’s literature market in this country of 40 million people. “The other challenge,” Shilolo says, “is getting illustrations right, quality, and competition from imported books which always look better.” Muthoni Garland concurs: “One of the greatest shortages we face as a publishing industry is a lack of trained and talented editors. This affects Kenya’s ability to consistently produce high quality books. Editing talent is proportionately expensive yet few publishers are prepared to train fresh editors as it takes a lot of time, expense and commitment. The second biggest (challenge) is that it is teachers who almost exclusively determine which books get bought and read. Teachers are generally very conservative and prefer books to shout/preach moral messages. Thus many books are not that exciting for kids to read as they are not written or edited with the consumer in mind, but rather to meet the demands of the influencers.”

Muthoni Garland has no qualms about her company’s literacy promotion efforts being “skewed towards children” because a relationship with books needs to be inculcated at an early age. Shortly after it was established, StoryMoja – a limited company often viewed as a literary movement – realized that most rural schools in Kenya do not have libraries and rarely have any “supplementary reading materials.” They started the Start-a-Library project which continues to deliver donated books to schools all over the country. StoryMoja also runs the popular StoryMoja Festival which takes place annually, in the month of September. Kenya’s other notable book festival, the annual Nairobi International Book Fair (NIBF), also takes place in the month of September. NIBF is held under the auspices of the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA) in partnership with Text Book Centre Ltd.

In 2015, StoryMoja led Kenyan primary school students into unofficially breaking the Guinness World Record for “Most People Reading Aloud from the Same Text at the Same Time from Different Venues.”  The “Storymoja Read Aloud” event, held on 15th June 2015, brought together 229,043 pupils from 1,097 schools scattered across the country. The exercise was a step towards promoting a “reading culture” amongst children and shattering the myth that “Kenyans don’t read”.  The text that was read out aloud was a passage from the children’s sci-fi book, Attack of the Shidas (StoryMoja), authored by Muthoni Garland herself. Officially, the Reading Aloud record is currently held by the United States of America, with 223,363 people in 909 venues.

Monday, June 11, 2018


‘If you’re the Crouching Tiger, then I’m the Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow
My martial arts skills are not just for show’
- Alexander Nderitu, ‘Who Spoke?’ (poem)

Alexander Nderitu at the Confucius Institute, University of Nairobi

Nairobi, Kenya -- A set of four poems by Alexander Nderitu are among the first works by a Kenyan writer to be translated into a Chinese dialect. The poems, some previously unpublished, are: The Clouds, If I Were a Calypsonian, Someone in Africa Loves You and The Last Great Russian Poet. The verses were written in English and translated into Chinese by the International Poetry Translation and Research Centre (IPTRC).

Due to the People’s Republic of China’s reputation as a ‘closed society’, translations of this nature are extremely rare. Besides text-books and other non-literary material, the first-ever Chinese-to-Kiswahili translation of creative work of literature is believed to have taken place as recently as 2016. The text was a poetry book byveteran Chinese writer Jidi Majia, titled Words of Fire From China (Kiswahili: Maneno Ya Moto Ya China). Speaking at the launch of the translation, Prof. Kithaka Wa Mberia – a poet, playwright and linguistics lecturer at Nairobi University – predicted further literary exchanges between the two countries:
‘We should not just translate literature from the big powers. Hopefully, some Kikuyu, Pokomo, Kiswahili poetry will also be read in Beijing or Berlin or elsewhere because someone translated it.'

He further went on to explain the importance of the discipline of translation:

'Many influential works have come to us through translation - Neruda (Spanish), Pushkin (Russian). Nyerere brought Shakespeare to us...When we understand other cultures, we minimize suspicion and misconceptions.’

Sino-Kenyan ties have grown by leaps and bounds over the last few years, as exemplified by the various mega-projects that the Kenyan gov’t has carried out in partnership with the Chinese. These include the Madaraka Express standard-gauge railway system, the Nairobi-Thika Superhighway and other infrastructural/construction works. Culturally, the Chinese are also making inroads into the Kenyan psyche. Present in Kenya are book publishers, broadcast stations like CCTV/CGTN Africa, StartTimes Pay TVservice, the China Daily newspaper, Chinese restaurants, and various learning institutions all over the country that teach Chinese language and culture. Nairobi was, in fact, the first African city to host a Confucius institute. In Behind the Belt, a short documentary about China's cultural influence in Kenya, Dr. Kamau Wango, director of the Confucius Institute in Nairobi, stated:

‘I keep on saying that China is becoming a very important country. A very important economic power...China is the second-largest economy in the world today. And therefore getting to know their language and culture is very, very important.’

It is noteworthy that Sino-Kenyan relations actually date back centuries. Chinese voyagers have been known to visit the East African coast since the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644). Some are even believed to have inter-married with locals after surviving a shipwreck near the islands of Lamu and Pate, and being unable to return home. New China TV investigated the claims of Sino-Kenyan bloodlines and delivered the following televised report:

According to Statista, nearly 1.3 billion people speak a variation of Chinese as of 2018 (mostly Mandarin dialect). However, Chinese is by no means the most widely-spoken language in the world, as it is almost entirely confined to the People’s Republic and Chinese immigrants. According to Ethnologue, ‘English is far more widely spoken than Spanish or Chinese. English is established in 106 countries, compared to 37 for Chinese and 31 for Spanish.’

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Below are some more videos on Sino-Kenyan cultural ties:
The 19th International Book in Nairobi, hosted by publishing companies from both Kenya and China: 

Chinese Culture Taking Kenya By Storm: 

Chinese infrastructure: A beacon of hope for Kenya: 

Chinese teacher imparts culture through dances in Kenya:

Kenya- China culture festival promoting smoother operations: 

Chinese companies in Kenya want to use cultural exchange to tightening trade ties: