Public libraries and theatres keep Nairobi ‘lit’

They act as sites of the capital city’s literary renaissance

In Summary

• The way we understand literature and book culture is ever evolving

Workers at the McMillan Library on January 19
Workers at the McMillan Library on January 19

In the heart of every postcolonial city, the urban landscape emerges as a living testament to the intricate interplay between history and transformation, and Nairobi is not an exception.

Our capital city, marked by its complex legacy of colonial rule, has, over the years, undergone a profound metamorphosis, reshaping its very identity as an engine of our literary cultural heritage.

Amidst this dynamic backdrop, public libraries and theatre houses, once imbued with colonial origins, now find themselves at the epicentre of our unfolding literary renaissance. They stand as resilient palimpsests, where the stories of younger generations (X, Millennials, Gen Z) and the ever-evolving globalised world intersect, weaving a narrative that transcends postcolonial time and colonial chronotopes.

For those of us who were raised in the last century, with public libraries as part of our childhood experience, this retrospection has a newer significance. Since the turn of the century, and after the inauguration of the new Constitution and a new curriculum in Kenya, the way we understand literature and book culture continues to undergo revitalisation.

The 21st Century Kenya has witnessed rapid urbanisation that sired new cities, including Nakuru, Kisumu and potentially Eldoret in the near future. This urbanisation has a culture-literary angle. The literary lifestyle that was once the preserve of Nairobi in terms of passion for theatre-going over the weekend and visitations to public libraries as a social pastime, is now cascading to other regions.

Devolution has given the policy guidance to many government institutions to enhance their presence outside Nairobi. The Kenya National Library Services (KNLS), for example, has revamped its operations in other towns where it has buildings and branches. It is aggressively re-asserting its mandate as a custodian of book culture from the national government perspective.

Recent rehabilitation and expansion of its headquarters in Upper Hill, Nairobi, has instigated a rise in membership and interest in its operations. In 2019, I was the chief guest at a book launch there. How deeply impressed I was at the changes there since I last visited the facility as a postgraduate student two decades ago! Such launches, workshops and other book activities signify the ever-present desire among Kenyans even today to enhance their reading habits.

Public libraries are not part of our indigenous heritage. These cherished cultural institutions have colonial roots just like public theatres of Kenya. The Little Theatre in Mombasa was founded in the 1940s, for example, as a site for recreation and socialisation for the art-loving bourgeoisie of that era. Today, under managers such as Lynn Rose, the playhouse hosts many productions by Kenyan youth, including stand-up comedies and musicals that resonate with Generation Z.

The Shrine, as the Kenya National Theatre (KNT) is fondly called, opened its doors to expatriate connoisseurs of performing arts at the height of colonial rule in Kenya in 1951. Seven decades later, this largest proscenium theatre space in East Africa is a darling hub for young Kenyan artistes, directors, playwrights and art-lovers.

Public libraries and theatre houses, therefore, continue to play a crucial role as engines of the cultural identity of our motherland. Six decades after Independence, they have evolved from colonial spaces meant for a few expatriate elites, to sites where literary vitality is nurtured to reflect our decolonial narratives across generations.

In this context, an initiative called Book Bunk has risen to visibility as a key stakeholder in the literary renaissance of Nairobi, as has the revamped KNLS. This initiative was founded six years ago by writer Wanjiru Koinange and publisher Angela Wachuka, who have become major catalysts of the literary renaissance of Kenya from their bases in Nairobi. Their passion for literature, storytelling and art as a dynamic for social development has seen their organisation stoutly serving our public good.

Wachuka says our public libraries are not just repositories of books; they are the nurturing grounds for literary greatness. They play a pivotal role in fostering a culture of reading, writing and literary exploration. Book Bunk has enhanced their public role by making them seats for a great annual international literary festival.

In 2018, Book Bunk entered a formal partnership with the Nairobi City County with a view to refurbishing the three ex-colonial libraries of the city: McMillan Memorial Library next to Jamia Mosque, Kaloleni Library and Eastlands Library.

Wachuka says their work includes sourcing and managing financial and in-kind support; steering architectural restoration, managing the library spaces; and design and delivery of arts and skills-based programming. The initiatives of Book Bunk have given a fresh façade to these important assets of the city and pose a positive challenge to their future growth.

I believe this entails panning out of Nairobi to instigate the refurbishment of public libraries of other cities of Kenya, in partnership with the county governments that host them. In fact, where such public libraries do not exist, Book Bunk can work with other stakeholders and devolution administrations to instal them. It is feasible to create several public libraries and performing arts complexes in each county.

Moreover, Book Bunk nowadays hosts the great NBO International Litfest annually. The 2023 version took place on August 24-27 under the theme: Mtaa Narratives and Stories that Ground Us. Several events were staged in all the three public libraries of Nairobi. Tickets sold out.

The event this year featured a children’s programme and a special tribute series in honour of fallen Kenyan literary icons like Micere Mugo. The young form the core of any sustainable agenda for building reading cultures across generations. They are at the core of the visions and mission of Book Bunk. Visit them at

NBO LitFest events were streamed live and staged in person, reinforcing the view of Book Bunk and KNLS that public libraries play a crucial role in nurturing literary talent and fostering a culture of reading and writing in our changing societies.

These institutions serve as the bedrock of intellectual growth and have moved far from their colonial agendas of cultural alienation to become instrumental in the recognition and celebration of literary excellence of our motherland.

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