Book Culture: Searching for a Good Read in Kenya

Posted on June 28, 2011

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I brought seven books with me to Kenya, each somewhere between eight hundred and one thousand pages in length. A goodly amount of reading, enough to bring me through the two months given all my other diversions, or so I thought. Apparently I was incorrect in that assumption—all the more disappointing because I usually like to think of myself as an individual able to think several dozen steps ahead. Then again, that’s hubris for you (and hubris is, I suspect, the only thing of which I have truly abundant stores).

I do not know how it happened, as I spend most of my weekdays at the office from nine in the morning (perhaps earlier) until seven or eight at night, take half an hour to an hour to get home, eat my dinner and sort out any other matters of necessity, and then try to get some sleep. And the weekends are not without their wanderings and distractions. Perhaps I didn’t account for the hours I spend tossing, turning, flipping through a few pages before I can finally slip off into oblivion, or mayhap I was overly confident about the amount of time I could spend wasting myself on the Internet. Regardless, near on seven thousand pages absolutely evaporated, gone god knows where. So yesterday (Saturday as of this writing) I decided to walk down the road a couple of miles to the Sarit Center, one of Nairobi’s posh big shopping centers, housing what I’d been told was one of the country’s largest and best book stores: the Text Book Center.

My expectations were not high; I was realistic. I had ducked into some other book stores in downtown Nairobi just to have a look around (bookshops are comforting places, possibly one of the only shops in which I’m happy to spend hours just browsing) and reliably the average bookshop carried The Bible, a few self-help books and perhaps some business (usually “get rich quick”) and biography (see last parenthetical aside) books as well. Stationary and odds and ends usually took up the remainder of the store, perhaps with a paltry offering of Grisham novels and children’s books. It’s not a reader’s culture and certainly not friendly to my admittedly pretentious, bougie tastes.

I expected the Text Book Center to be at best something of the size of the Columbia Bookstore or perhaps something like the Broadway storefront of Book Culture—a moderate, but respectable neighborhood bookshop. Certainly it wouldn’t have every title, but enough of a selection for a quick browse and a variety of tastes to be pleased. But there I went assuming things, which I ought never do, especially in a foreign country.

Half of the store was given over to textbooks for primary, secondary, and higher education, much as the name would imply. But half is perhaps not the right word, as the remainder of the store (more like one-third the size of the shop) was so broken by fixtures and display stands of stationary and trinkets as to limit the number of book cases that could be shoved together. Sparse as they were, the back wall was entirely devoted to Africana texts, a couple of dictionaries, the next largest section given over to language and travel books (catering directly to the expats and tourists who flock to Sarit for a vague reminiscence of the west, I suppose), and the third largest chunk of shelves propped up a fair number of children’s books. Oh, yes, there were self-help, business, cooking, hobby, and all manner of specialty books, even a few biographies and histories, but only three small shelves, the size of a bookshelf you might keep in your house, devoted to the remainder of the world’s writings.

One shelf was entirely made up of fantasy, mainly various copies of the Harry Potter series, but with shocking (and personally disappointing) inroads made by the Twilight novels (and a respectable showing by the His Dark Materials books, which was somewhat confusing given the trend I’m about to describe below). The second was all about fiction, but not general fiction—just Grisham and Clancy and other such plane books. And the final shelf of interest was labeled “classics.” However, half of that shelf was made up of the adorably named “Puffin Classics,” the Penguin books abbreviated and softened for a younger audience. And of the remaining classics, I was shocked to see what had and hadn’t made the shelf.

The logic of it wasn’t readily apparent to me at first. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Anne of Green Gables and The Last of the Mohicans all made the shelf, but many of the staples hadn’t. Granted this is Africa and different literary tastes prevail, but the Americana on the shelf and lack of those books I’d seen in Ghana or other parts of the world less western, it was all a bit odd. As I ticked through it, though, I noticed that the one common denominator to the books that made the list was this: the family friendly classics.

I cannot say for sure, but I have to guess that one will never find a copy of Lolita or anything by Evelyn Waugh, and the works of Oscar Wilde were on the tame and soft side of his wit. Nor do I suspect that you’ll readily find anything by David Sedaris or Dave Eggars or many of the more blunt and irreverent modern writers. In short: nothing too racy.

When you enter the nation, the customs card asks if you are carrying any publications that could be deemed morally reprehensible (in different words, of course, but that’s the gist of it). I assumed that meant, did I have hardcore porn in my possession? No, I do not tend to carry such things. But a little investigation proved that under the legal code of Kenya the government retains the right to ban any publication it deems to go against the moral code of the nation.

For the most part I assume that means the explicitly pornographic. There’s the grey zone of erotic fiction, but certainly the law makes it clear that pornographic description or depiction is permissible in the name of art or religion (the two intertwining so often in law, subject matter, and reverence). I still have my hunch that the government may not be so keen on letting the works of Georges Bataille or the Marques de Sade proliferate and even Lolita will probably not make it into the nation in a mass shipment unmolested (pun totally intended retrospectively). I have no problem believing in a hush-hush de facto government ban, a poo-poohing that has taken on the weight of law. But I certainly do not believe, based on my observations and reading of the law and the people, that the Kenyan government has some Vatican-scale codex of banned books.

However the existence of the law is troublesome in what it points towards and then points right back to. Namely, the way in which it recognizes, legitimizes, and then replicates, through all the dangerous power of a murky and moralistic law, most malleable at that, a cultural norm that has some negative implications for free speech and free choice.

Kenya is a Christian nation, or so the law affirms in a very robust fashion. That’s not so different form many nations with a Christian background, to claim that culture and enshrine its values somewhere within. I see the same in my native land from time to time. But there’s a difference in being a Christian nature by culture and consensus and being a Christian nation by law however unrealistic it is to enforce that law to a meaningful level. I see no attempt at persecution, but recognition and affirmation on the national level is dangerously encouraging and dangerously limiting.

The attempt of such moralizing laws, I suspect, is homogenization. If one politician can make the claim, we are a Christian nation, then no matter the tribalism, no matter the factions or the artificial creation of the nation’s boundaries and sense of identity, there is some core value shared by all. If that can be reinforced and built up, the ethos of a Christian nation, through soft law and through the subtle molding of society by forces governmental and para-governmental, then that clearly serves a function for the unity, the peace, and the sense of internal (psychological more often than not) security of the nation. Reaffirming this moralistic conception of national identity helps operate the nation, helps candidates hold a popular vote, helps marshal common values and channel populism. All only to an extent, mind, but it serves a purpose.

But homogenizing the nation is homogenizing the nation. No doubt the culture was firmly Christian at the outset and that is why it was an easy value to impress and to use as a point of expansive homogeneity. And from the point of homogeneity onwards it becomes supply and demand economics.

A society frowns on a book or a style of writing, and that has some power to limit the type of books a population will be exposed to. But when a government implicitly or subtly frowns on a style of writing (especially the morally/socially transgressive), that keeps the racy stuff out of the classroom and lends weight to the local order of things. When the law backs free speech, it makes a more comfortable environment for the seller of all manner of books, for the buyer of all manner of books. But when government backs society and lends weight to limitations on reading materials, it leads to an uncomfortable environment for the alternative media economy on both ends while raising generations with ever more limited exposure to and thus taste in literature. The result is this: book stores sell what people read, and people read what the mixed force of culture and government as deemed acceptable enough to make available. And the population, becoming largely homogenous through a confluence of forces in its moral values, does not leave much open space for transgressive/alternative literature. This can itself only lead to even more homogenization of the culture, I fear—ever lowering the chance at a diverse media marketplace.

Sure there’s something to be said of the Internet and of radio and other forms of media willing to press the boundaries of the acceptable. And the street hawkers and the black market can get you access to almost anything in the end (as with everywhere). But the book is a unique forum for ideas, a unique type of media, and not even the hawkers and black marketers can truly make up for the void in the mainstream and legitimate market, I fear.

So in the end the literary palette of Kenya remains somewhat limited, I fear. I’m doing my best—I’ve decided to assign a transgressive or challenging text, a unique one, to each girl in my class. And perhaps things like the Kindle will bring a little liberalization. But so long as there remains an overarching moral homogeneity to the nation alongside a less than legitimately neutral and free set of laws (no matter how weak), I find myself as a free press junkie a little perturbed.

Anyway, this is all conjecture as I’ve not taken the time to look too deeply into the history or conduct any serious polling or look into how new media has been changing consumption habits. And people still find ways to access everything here (I found some reading materials in the end). But I have to vent my fears, my irks, here. If not here, then where?

Perhaps I should take my friend Nettra’s advice and just get an e-reader to avoid all of this mess. But if I did that, I would not be crotchety old me.

Endnote: I have used the word crotchety five times today in independent situations. And I have never felt better.

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