Textbook dynamics in our reading culture

July had a book boom as children went back to school

In Summary

• Critics moaning about the dearth of a reading culture fail to see the bigger picture

Parents buy textbooks post in Mombasa CBD. Most parents prefer buying cheap second-hand books.
Parents buy textbooks post in Mombasa CBD. Most parents prefer buying cheap second-hand books.

A fortnight ago, we Kenyans were treated to a spectacle like no other. Queues without end appeared at the various bookshops across the country. You would have thought there was a book famine in Kenya and shops were dishing out relief food (read, books) freely!

Of course, as the shops attended to parents whose kids were moving a grade or class higher up the ladder of education, social distance had to be enforced. The media highlighted these images akin to those of election day, lines winding around street corners of parents seeking textbooks.

It is said that knowledge is power as the motto of Kenyatta University advises us. It is even said that knowledge is wealth and this is the motto of Chuka University. Power and wealth are the ingredients that most Kenyans seek in prayers as they chase their Kenyan dreams, or their own personal Vision 2030.

The second-hand book vendors were not left behind. In masks and accents of all types, they cajoled us parents with saucy offers of mitumba textbooks. A keen visitor notices fast that apart from politics, religion and tribalism, nothing else fascinates Kenyans like the desire to equip their kids with a school-based life of books better than their own!

A grey-haired, semi-literate mtumba book vending tycoon in Thika whispered to me, with glittering eyes, how he would finally complete a chain of bedsitter-rentals he was erecting in a massive slum nearby. The book boom this July had heated the wintry month for him better than any Gikomba jacket you and I own.

In an economy wrecked by Covid, desperate school books-buying wananchi had buoyed his landlordly-dreams all the way to Equity Bank and Wanyonge Sacco. With loans from both topping up his scoop from the recent school re-opening boom, he was about to omoka (breakthrough), he shared.

His rust-toothed grin never left his unmasked mouth as he spat pandemically on a hefty bundle of thousands hidden in his rugby socks and counted my change. He packed my hillock of second-hand books into a gunny sack formerly occupied by pishori rice.

Forget the danger of his spit. Had he not boasted that he has AstraZeneca riding his arteries, free? It is his twinkle twinkle eyes that I can never forget. His eyes gave me an insight that the culture of books ought not be understood from the perspective of creative literature only.

When pundits peer into the future then moan and mourn about the dearth of a reading culture in Kenya, surely they ought to see that reading needs not be understood from a narrow of view of what literature is.

Granted, literature strictly means all texts of creative imagination. Yet the same word generally means any written books or articles. This is why your medic advises you to take your assigned medicine but peruse the literature in the box bearing the drugs, too. Do most of us Kenyans do so?

I am convinced that the televised scenes of gross textbook sales by bookshops and book vendors we witness each opening day indicate that Kenyans are a serious reading folk – or a folk that at least takes reading of books seriously.

Surely we are aware that those who never finished their own education run through the entire curriculum. Those we call dropouts, those for whom reading is a luxury or hurdle, are the ones who struggle the hardest to offer their offspring a better springboard based on books to the future!

The Kisii mama who sells me indigenous vegetables to fortify my family against corona sends her daughter to a bus-owning academy. A Somali woman who refills bottles of scent with oriental fumes that hide the rationed water menace and seldom washed clothes of our dusty estate, sends her blind son Omar to the same academy.

The mutura butchery owner sends his twins to this academy, too. My several kids go there. The slay queen who sits for centuries on a balcony opposite mine and waits for a retired politician to visit each weekend without fail, has her sole daughter picked by the yellow bus of the same academy.

This is just but one academy, like many in Kenya, that has a two-page list of required books for each grade and class. The query is not whether all will be read but rather where all will be bought!

The future of books in Kenya is safe. At textbook-buying places, don’t we Kenyans forget all our divides? Here together, we praise different textbooks, savour the literature with thumbs and nods, critique various publishers, appraise this or that school and share our strong bonds with the book education we adore!

So as we lament about the weather, the economy or the upcoming polls and their strategists, let us allow the seeds of reading to sprout and blossom.

Today our kids, who future citizens are, read new and mutumba textbooks in numbers that jaw-drop us all. Tomorrow they will read the constitution. Perhaps. Perhaps each modern republic that invests in a reading culture secures its future just as a society that remembers its folklore secures its past.

Dr Makokha teaches Literature and Theatre at Kenyatta University