Shelf Lives

A performative tour of libraries in Nairobi

Reception and library at Kwani Trust,  Nairobi, 2013. Photograph: Isabella Gomes

Reception and library at Kwani Trust, Nairobi, 2013. Photograph: Isabella Gomes

There are ten of us squeezed into the living room of an apartment block on the outskirts of Nairobi. Sponge cake and fruit juice have been laid out on a low table, also a stack of books. The books belong to Phyllis Muthoni, the Kenyan poet whose debut collection is titled Lilac Revolution (2010). Muthoni apologizes for the modest selection: her personal library is in storage, she says – and this isn’t even her house. Jacqueline Karuti, the young Nairobi painter convening In the Case of Books, a performative tour of various libraries in Nairobi, waves Muthoni on. The tour, which encompasses ‘dusting’ and ‘arranging’ activities, also invites ‘talking’.

Muthoni does just that, recalling her three years in Uganda. ‘That really shaped my thinking,’ she says. ‘What I found is that it is difficult to be an expatriate in your own continent, because you’re black – your differences are not as recognizable as when you are white in an African country.’ Peterson Kamwathi, a Nairobi draughtsman known for his life-size charcoal drawings and woodcuts portraying multitudes (of voters, policemen, businessmen and hooded prison inmates), nods his head. He tells how, on cycling trips from his home in Kiambu to Limuru, both small communities north of Nairobi, young boys curious about his lycra clothing will ask if he is a foreigner.

Cake is served, the conversation flits. London is not like Nairobi, people agree. ‘I missed the noise,’ explains Muthoni. ‘London is not quiet, but there was a lack of something. It took me a while to realize what it was: spontaneity, chat, laughter, smiling, people expressing themselves on the street.’ Not that Nairobi’s visceral pleasures are without anxiety. ‘I have met so many people who ask me where I am from,’ says Muthoni. ‘I say Nairobi.’ Which in turn prompts the question: ‘But where is home?’

It is a line of reasoning that frustrates Kamwathi, who was born and raised in Nairobi. James Mweu, a dancer and photographer, pipes up: ‘There is this joke up-country where people look at your skin, its fineness, and say, ‘‘I can see tap water.’’ I tell them I can see dam water in theirs.’ Laughter and more juice. The conversation shifts to Kwani? (Why Not?), the trust and literary magazine founded in 2003 with Binyavanga Wainaina as editor. The magazine’s humorous and conversational tone, which ruptured Kenyan literary convention, is not without a broader context, says Muthoni, one its editors. Its style is also an expression of a society learning ‘to breathe’ after the over-long presidency of Daniel arap Moi (1978–2002).

Karuti directs us to do less ‘talking’, more ‘dusting’ and ‘arranging’, which culminates in her spraying scented water into the air as an informal blessing. It is a routine she repeats at the next three venues we are conveyed to in a minivan, or matatu, the first of which is the editorial offices of Kwani? The origins of the magazine date back to an email circulated amongst Nairobi’s literati, which questioned the morbid state of Kenyan letters and bemoaned the lack of new writers being published. Meetings were convened, proposals written and names like Wainaina, Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor and Billy Kahora introduced.

The magazine’s offices have a library containing 400-odd books for loan; many are by middle-brow British authors such as Tony Parsons and Barbara Trapido and there is a compendium on the yBas: it’s as if a book club in Great Yarmouth had made a compassionate donation. There are no copies of Transition, the once-insurgent literary magazine founded in neighbouring Uganda by Rajat Neogy in 1961 (but now published out of Harvard University), nor any of the canonical if rheumatoid ‘African Writers Series’ titles published by Heinemann. The absences suggest an ideal: Kwani? wants to reorganize the library.

‘There is nothing wrong with being what you are not in Kenya,’ offers Wainaina in his 2002 Caine Prize-winning essay ‘Discovering Home’, ‘just be it successfully.’ It is one way to think past the paucity of Kwani?’s library. Wainaina’s essay is a necessary reference point for other reasons. ‘Art galleries in Kenya,’ he writes, ‘buy only the expression for which there is demand in Europe and America – the real artists, the guys who are turning their lives into vivid colour, are the guys who decorate matatus.’ The graphic directness of the sign-writing tradition is discernable in the work of many Nairobi artists, including Karuti, who has a studio at the Kuona Trust Arts Centre.

Established in 1995 and initially based at the National Museum of Kenya, it moved into a former two-floor suburban home in Kilimani in 2008. Its library of 1,700 books, housed in what was once a bedroom, is the largest specialist art library in East Africa. Kamwathi, a former Kuona librarian, remembers when it was ‘a shelf with 20 to 40 books’– a description that encapsulates the meagre library of mostly photobooks at PAWA254, a communal workspace for freelance journalists, artists and activists founded in 2012 by photographer Boniface Mwangi, also on the itinerary. Entering Kuona’s library, Karuti’s plans for ‘dusting, arranging and talking’ are briefly scuppered. Participants in her tour fall still, tilt their heads sideways, pull books from the shelves with their index finger, and abortively get lost.

Sean O’Toole is a writer and contributing editor of frieze. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.

Issue 159

First published in Issue 159

Nov - Dec 2013

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