• Event at Alliance Francaişe proved reading culture is alive and kicking in Kenya
Had purveyors of the “Kenyans-don’t-read” trope been at the lobby of the Alliance Francaişe library at 5.30pm on Saturday, September 30, they would have had eggs on their faces. There, at the library’s lobby, a throng of book enthusiasts hugged and chit-chatted away as they celebrated the success of yet another reading campaign. Indeed, Kenyans have been reading.
For the three hours that the crowd sat in the library, a mere discussion about books had gathered more than enough steam and metamorphosed into an impassioned fiery debate. The event host, the charming Lexa Lubanga, sat at the periphery, flashing a wide enigmatic smile of satisfaction and sometimes bewilderment as the debate raged. “This is the magic of Kenyan tales!” she mumbled to herself.
On that hot Saturday afternoon, readers had gathered to close the curtains on the fourth edition of the Kenyan Readathon under the theme “The Magic of Kenyan Tales”. The Kenyan Readathon is a month-long campaign held annually to promote Kenyan literary works. Throughout the month of September, readers across the country are encouraged to read as many Kenyan-authored books as possible, while sharing their progress and insights on social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter), Instagram and Facebook, and ultimately gather for a robust panel-led discussion at the end of the month.
The panelists for the fourth edition were Qwani’s founder Keith Ang’ana, a young academic from the University of Nairobi’s literature department called Paul Muindi, and Eric Rugara, author of the much-talked-about surrealist novel titled, A Surreal Journey of Discovery.
In a quest to unravel the magic behind Kenyan tales, the panelists unanimously agreed that the power of Kenyan tales lies in their ability to reflect our lived reality. According to Ang’ana, “When you read Meja Mwangi’s works, for example, or Silas Nyanchwani or even Natasha Muhanji’s story in Qwani’s anthology, you realise that those stories sort of hold up a mirror for the Kenyan society to reflect on our realities through time. Those stories stir our social consciousness and enable us to be more aware and introspective of our experiences much more than books from elsewhere would.”
GAPS IN LITERATURE
A point of departure, however, was the extent to which Kenyan writers have gone to explore Kenyan experiences. “I am troubled by the fact that most of the stories by Kenyan writers, especially the recent ones, have an urban or peri-urban setting,” Wambua said. “What happens to stories from those far-flung areas of this country that nobody talks about? Enough is not being written about that.”
Frank Njugi, a culture journalist and author of the poetry chapbook "Risto za Maswara," published by Nigerian publishing house Konya Shamsrumi Press, argued from the audience that while it's commendable that more Kenyans are writing and sharing their stories, the recent surge in book releases has coincided with a decline in literary standards. “While self-publishing is a welcome move, authors need to have that their work rigorously edited before release to ensure that literary standards are upheld,” he said.
The atmosphere in the library suddenly became charged when the question of language was brought up.
“What is the place of Kiswahili in telling our stories? Very few Kenyan writers are writing in Kiswahili. Go to the exhibition at the lobby and count just how many books are in Kiswahili,” Lexa Lubanga lamented before the audience.
Both Eric Rugara and Ang’ana attributed the scarcity of Kenyan writers using Kiswahili to our education system. Eric said the punishment for speaking in Kiswahili during primary school led them to accept English as a superior language. “In high school, we read Kiswahili set books solely for tests, not for enjoyment. There was no Kiswahili equivalent of James Hadley Chase or James Patterson. All Kiswahili books were the dreary set books that we loathed,” he said.
Before Eric’s and Ang’ana’s views could settle within the audience, spoken word artiste Dorphan, supported by Muthoni, vehemently countered Eric’s argument. According to them, the minimal use of Kiswahili was as a result of Kenyans’ failure in their social responsibility to promote a language that is germane to them.
Muthoni, in particular, argued that there was no reason why we do not promote Kiswahili in our own small ways while avenues to do so existed. Seemingly tired from the back and forth of the debate, Eric said the absence of an audience for Kiswahili literature was the main reason why Kenyan writers shy away from using it as a tool for their literary works. “Writers come from society. Most writers simply aren’t fluent in Kiswahili to use it with confidence in creative writing,” he said.
PLACE OF SHENG
The next point of contestation was the use of sheng’ as a literary tool. At the mention of sheng’, Ang’ana’s eyes seemed to dilate, revealing a glint of excitement.
While the use of Sheng’ as a literary tool is not a new concept in Kenya, as that had already been pioneered by Kwani? in its first issue in 2003, its use in literature seems to have died down through the years.
“We at Qwani are hell-bent on starting a renaissance period for sheng’ by legitimising the sheng’ of our time, popularly known as Sheng’ Tezzo, through literature,” he excitedly said. “This is the language of our time, and what better way to chronicle the language and experiences of our time than through literature?”
In a quick rejoinder, Jerusha Kananu, the winner of the 2023 Afrika Redefined Indie Prize for her book “Marry Me A Co-Wife,” emphasised that while Sheng’ is uniquely versatile and accommodating, its weakness as a literary language lies in its rapid evolution.
In response to Jerusha’s comments, Eric said that one of the sure ways to correct that weakness was to ensure that no word that hadn’t completed its evolution should be used in Sheng’ writing.” Don’t write anatuignore. Instead, write, anatulenga,” he said.
To shore up his point, Eric added, “Language is evolved in the streets and photographed or slowed down in books. That Sheng’ is heavily used on text-based platforms like X and Facebook can only mean that a critical mass for sheng’ language writing already exists.
“Sheng’ would be very useful for capturing uniquely Kenyan experiences that one would otherwise struggle to express in English or even Kiswahili. For example, 'Njage masanse wakwende' is a uniquely street way to tell off the police. If that statement would be translated into, say, English or Kiswahili, its punch would be lost.”
Eager hands shot up from the audience, but sensing that the debate could drag on for hours on end, Lexa Lubanga intervened by inviting spoken word poet Lexas Mshairi to placate the audience with a poetry-cum-music performance and effectively close the curtains on a successful fourth edition of the Kenyan Readathon.