Book fairs show we are no literary desert

Such fairs hosted annually bespeak the resurgence of the book cultures of Africa

In Summary

• Africa’s ancient book cultures are now entering the world of digital literariness

Kenya Publishers Association chairman Lawrence Njagi at a past edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair
Kenya Publishers Association chairman Lawrence Njagi at a past edition of the Nairobi International Book Fair
Image: FILE

This year, the 23rd Nairobi International Book Fair, organised by the Kenya Publishers Association, happened online from September 24-26.

The fair is a books extravaganza that brings together book lovers from all walks of life, including students and schools. The fair occurred virtually due to the current Covid-19 pandemic.

When books are collected together, they resemble libraries. The Nairobi International Book Fair has become a kind of library for a moment. It supplies a wide range of reading materials produced by African writers for African readers.

Our national and literary opinion-shapers are aware of the role that books play in fostering national heritage and cultural identity. The retired premier Raila Odinga and Prof Ngugi wa Thiong’o graced the virtual opening ceremony of this fair.

Each September for 23 years now, the fair becomes a momentous library for the region. Kenyans and others can more than borrow the books. They can make them private property through purchase.

Did you know that one of the oldest libraries in recorded world history was here in Africa? It was called The Great Library of Alexandria. It was a wonder of ancient Egypt in North Africa. It existed around two centuries before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.

This great library was destroyed, but the Egypt of today has built a new massive library where the ancient one stood. The new one is called Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Latin or Maktabet al Es-kendereyya in Arabic or Maktaba la Aleksandaria in Swahili.

In the medieval times in West Africa, Timbuktu of troubled Mali of today was once a fabled city of learning and books of Islamic literature.

Today, books and book fairs are not alien to Africa at all. The idea of Africa as an ocean of orality and desert of literacy (or written literature) is no longer tenable. The international book fairs hosted annually by Nairobi, Harare and Cape Town are evidence to the resurgence of book cultures of Africa. These popular book fairs are commercial hubs for African publishers but also act as annual libraries of literacy and literariness for the youth.

Personally, my literary habits were first implanted in my personality by my parents through a library. They were both in the reading habits and had sold our old black and white television set to egg us towards a reading culture. In the place of the old television, they brought us all sorts of story books, from school texts to second-hand copies of pop literature.

Picture in your mind a small, yellow two-bedroom government house. We lived in it nine of us and my parents. Several rotational relatives lived with us, too. Our parents arranged for us to go to the dusty and lone Eldoret town library each Saturday.

Perhaps it was one way of keeping us away awhile with our cacophony so they could enjoy some weekend euphony or symphony? Anyway, I remember these bygone library moments as my best part of the week.

In that Kenya National Library Services branch in Eldoret, I discovered wonderful lands with Alice and went on many mythical journeys in Ancient Greece with Hercules through reading. I discovered many tunes, such as that little song about Old Macdonald who had a farm that thrills new little Kenyans.

Was this farm in Eldoret? Was it in colonial Africa? Most of these dog-eared books my generation of Nyayo era read in public libraries were from Europe. Had they been donated by the former British settlers who lived in Kenya before Independence? Was it a postcolonial sin to read books donated by colonialists?

It is said that the books in McMillan library in Nairobi partially came from donations by various colonial families. One such familiar is that the benefactor of this library in the heart of Nairobi is old William Northrup McMillan, who is buried on the summit of Kilimambogo Hill. This lopsided hill soars in the skyline north of Nairobi and watches over Nairobi’s Eastlands.

This week as I attended online sessions of the 23rd Nairobi International Book Festival, I felt a certain excitement. The fair collapsed barriers of space and time, which over the years have limited the book festival to a city affair annually hosted in Westlands. Many attended it from the comfort of their homes across counties and the country.

Just as I had toured the world and faraway wonderlands from the comfort of the old library in Eldoret of the early 1990s, bibliophiles currently at home out of coronavirus concerns attended the just-ended Nairobi International fair from their homes.

Live events of the festival this year could be followed using channels such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter on a daily basis. The festival came to an end but left a message in the air: Africa’s ancient book cultures are now entering the world of digital literariness, electronic books, cyber texts and virtual book fairs or festivals.