How can we build our reading culture?

| October 5, 2012 - 15.12UTC

Many people close their minds to books when they finish their last school or college exam – recreational reading doesn’t seem to be a Kenyan habit. But how can we change that, asks Muthoni Garland?

Kenya’s reading culture – or lack of it – has been debated enough. We have asked the questions relating to why so few Kenyans read books: is it because most are published in English, the language of exams? Is it a legacy of our oral storytelling tradition? Are books too expensive? is the internet damaging our interest? Whatever the answers, most of us would agree on the benefits of reading: that it improves the brain. So perhaps it’s time to stop castigating ourselves, and address the issues that would make a difference…

Catch them young
We could start by improving access to books. Earlier this year, Storymoja – the writing collective of which I am MD – initiated a ‘Start a Library’ campaign, through which individuals or organisations can pay to have packs of our books donated to schools. I would also encourage those who believe reading is important to set an example – visit a school and offer to spend an hour a week reading with the children.

We also need to develop best-practice guidelines on how to effectively run libraries in schools, given the very real constraints of needing to cover our heavy-duty curriculum. This will involve talking to all the stakeholders concerned, and ideally the Government would be involved by instituting a library policy for all schools. As it is, the question of whether a school has a library is totally at the discretion of the teachers.

Children learn best by example. But when it comes to reading non-textbook material, many parents practise the ‘do as I say, not as I do’ brand of persuasion. Yet in traditional culture, parents and older relatives used to tell stories to children, in the knowledge that myths of our origins and imaginative tales all taught invaluable moral lessons in an entertaining way.

Today there is a world of local and international stories accessible in books that parents can share with their kids. I encourage parents to read storybooks with their children from their very first birthday, for 30 minutes each bedtime. As well as developing their children’s creativity, vocabulary and love of reading, the nightly exercise is great for parent-child bonding.

The digital revolution
Reading is about access to content, not format or channel. Kenya is at the forefront of exploring IT technology. For writers, the ability to upload and distribute work worldwide at low cost is exciting. And the spread of digital e-readers means that a huge library of books is now available at our fingertips.

As technology develops and becomes cheaper, the Government should explore how textbooks and other materials can be delivered to students digitally. Imagine the cost savings and the range of books that could be made available.

The future of books
Change rarely happens overnight. Books and digital reading formats will exist side by side for a long time. Those who’ve grown up with books love the tactile sensation of flipping through pages, the visual pleasures of cover design, the smell of old books.

Whether through books or digital products, the greatest pleasure is delving into stories that have stimulated imagination and affected history over the generations. So much intelligence and experience over centuries of our existence has been captured and laid bare – and all we have to do is open a page.

Caine Prize-nominated author Muthoni Garland is MD of Storymoja, a writing collective and publishing house. Storymoja runs the Storymoja Hay Festival, a literary event in Nairobi, in September.

Book Club
5 Great Reads for Adults
1 The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin (popular fiction) – A fiercely funny and provocative tale of four wives and one husband in Nigeria.
2 Living Memories by Al Kags (non-fiction) – A collection of stories told by ordinary Kenyans over 65, who grew up in the 1930s to 1950s; laden with emotion, nostalgia and bucketfuls of insight.
3 Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz (literary fiction) – Mahfouz won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988; his Cairo Trilogy is an enchanting look into the life of an Egyptian patriarch across three generations.
4 My Side of the Street by Chris Lyimo (biography) – The story of one man’s journey to sobriety. Not just about alcoholism, it covers love, forgiveness and the triumph of the human spirit
5 The Peculiar Kenyan by Sunny Bindra (non-fiction) – A collection of articles by the Nation columnist, written with his trademark edgy humour.

5 Great Reads for Kids
1 Little Thithinda and the Wind Game by Karimi Gatimi (2-7yrs) – A beautiful story that teaches lessons of identity and self-acceptance.
2 Baby Star by Shaleen Keshavjee (2-7yrs) – An amazing tale of stars, bullies, princesses, birds and a very brave heroine.
3 The Matatu from Watamu Drove into the Sea! by Muthoni Muchemi (6-12yrs) – A rude Rasta driver and his octopus tout drive their matatu into the Indian Ocean. A delightfully funny story that explores the world under the sea, and teaches about conservation.
4 Go-Go the Goat goes Gaga in the Game Park by Edwin Mokaya (6-12yrs) – The adventures of Go-Go, who tries to get out of the game park without becoming dinner. Hilarious!
5 Attack of the Shidas: AKAs save Planet Earth by Muthoni Muchemi (12yrs+) – A story with a powerful message: Tosha, Shana and Pato have special powers; they discover that the water thieves are invisible aliens from a dry planet, but nobody believes the children. Can they stop the aliens?

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