How to (Re)Build A Kenyan Library?

By Syokau Mutonga, Research & Inventory Manager


A while ago, as the realities of COVID-19 and it’s interruptions were setting in, my team and I came across a call for applications that was interested in discussing the state of African libraries. At the same time, Book Bunk was developing a plan to crowdsource the phrase, “Welcome to the Library” in all of Kenya’s indigenous languages. When that project went live, more than 80% of the respondents were not Kenyan native speakers. In fact, most of them who were able to translate the phrase clearly in their mother tongue spoke a European language where the concept of a library in its traditional sense applies. For the Kenyans who submitted a translation, most of them shared that they had to really rack their minds for a literal translation of ‘library’ since the word seems to be absent from our indiginous spoken languages.

So, it occurred to us that while we all have a word for ‘welcome’ in our native tongues, a translation for ‘library’ becomes elusive. I suppose this should not surprise us since the concept of a building as the ultimate repository of knowledge is a foreign one in the African continent. Think, for example of common phrases, like, ‘When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Or the salience of oral literature whether through singing, poetry, storytelling, etc. Now this is not to say that written histories and experiences are absent on the African continent. On the contrary, there are thousands of African texts that were destroyed with the onset of colonialism, not forgetting the literature inscribed on rocks and other books across space and time. But the absence of an exact translation of ‘library’ in most Kenyan languages might be a starting point for explaining why Kenyan literary repositories are idiosyncratic and dynamic, sometimes adapting to the current needs of the communities that inhabit them.

From community libraries that multi-task as event meeting spaces and training grounds to institutional libraries that serve better as personal study rooms and not as book repositories with collections relevant to the needs of the users, the Kenyan library is unyielding in its overt statement that the traditional western model which valorizes written texts in libraries as the blueprint for how the human race acquires, retains and remembers knowledge is impossible and inaccurate.

To that end, a Kenyan library in the simplest sense (whether physical building or person) is not just a repository of information and knowledge. It is a living and dynamic space that is defined by the people who inhabit it, imbued with the ability to adapt to the hopes, aspirations and needs of the time. Everything about the library should seek to meet the needs of the users.

That being said, if our response to this assertion is to then restore Nairobi’s libraries by focusing on Nairobian/Kenyan identity, aren’t we in essence concealing the realities of the world we live in? Take for example the McMillan Memorial library, which was built to serve Europeans in the region. If Book Bunk’s response to that is to focus on a singular Kenyan identity, are we reproducing the same approach in a different way? Will the end result of this be an encouragement of the systems that continue to exclude those on the margins of society? Hence, rather than making visible the histories and identities that were excluded in the ordering of library spaces in Nairobi, we make invisible both the lived experiences of the people we seek to include?

Our response to this is developing intersectional approaches that celebrate the collective, multiple social and physical identities of Nairobi’s libraries. We are promoting deconstructive skill that rethink traditional linear library definitions and systems – a practice Chela Sandoval calls oppositional consciousness . This is one of the ways as cultural professionals we are responding to intersectionality to marginalization in public shared spaces.

By opening up the McMillan library branches for change, we have accessed ideational and social resources from the users and arts community at large. Ideas previously unseen like holding events in the library and creating a podcast that orally explores Nairobi’s rich history; harnessing opportunities in educational gaps like giving library tours to schools as a way of teaching history and the arts; re-framing cataloguing classifications in ways which are exposing the cultural exclusions in the Dewey Decimal system; pursuing previously unimagined partnerships with local and international institutions.

If physical spaces are created to produce certain identities out of those who inhabit them, then space is something that is fundamentally social rather than physical. Such a perception of space allows one to understand, in a better way, how space shapes both the physical and social landscape of Nairobi, particularly in interpretations of identity and belonging. While the long-term systemic change that we desire may not happen immediately and even address all the marginalised identities all at once. But this new consciousness and practise of seeing the library as a space of memory, heritage and art where shared experiences, cultural leadership and information exchange exist is re-imagining physical shared spaces in more intersectional and egalitarian ways.

[1] (Sandoval, 2000). Sandoval calls this her “science of oppositional ideology” or “methodology of the oppressed”. “Oppositional consciousness” emerges from a conscious break with ideology while remaining located within it.