On Reading …

In primary school, I learnt that Africa’s storytelling tradition produced a variety of genres. The most prominent were myths of origin; “how” stories – e.g. how the tortoise beat the hare; and “why” stories – e.g. why the lion sleeps during the day. As I later came to learn, these texts represented the first wave of African literary production. In the first half of the 20th Century, after several decades under European colonization, Africans turned to cultural production in order to shore up their sense of self, and to prepare for the inevitable battle for political self-determination. If mass protests and employee strikes did not yield immediate success in ousting foreign rule – and how could they, when such actions often incited violent reprisals from colonial administrators – subjects of British, French, Belgium German, and Portuguese imperialism turned to the cultural realm. Licking their wounds after strikes on the Dakar-Niger Railroad, the Ethiopian railway service, and at the port of Mombasa, Africans returned to their treasure trove of oral traditions for guidance. Authors collected anthologies of proverbs, sayings, riddles, songs, and stories.

It was these collections of orature that I would later encounter at Ngong Hills Academy, five decades on. There was a large number of African story books circulating between us kids. Such tales inevitably involved giants and ogres, talking animals, and feuding humans. Our school library supplemented these with boxes of books that were brought to class by our class teacher for distribution during “Reading Hour.” The entire room would go silent, after the usual and attendant chaos that emanates from 10-year olds choosing what to read. East African Why Stories by Pamela Kola, for instance, had tales such as “How the Goat Became Our Friend,” “How the Hawk and the Crow Came to Hate Each Other,” and “How the Beans Came to Have a Black Sport on Them.” I loved these texts. The language was simple and easy to follow – think Old Man & the Sea. There was nothing pretentious about them. As woks of fiction, they had initially been commissioned to demonstrate the colonial fallacy that Africans could not write, read, or produce anything intellectual.

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Burning Grass by Cyprian Ekwensi

In Dec 2015, I travelled to Kenya for the Christmas holidays. 7 months earlier, I’d graduated with my PhD in English and had been fortunate to have my mom join me in Miami for the ceremony. As she departed, we’d agreed that my family would hold a bigger get-together later that year to truly celebrate my achievements, with relatives and family friends in attendance.

During those actual festivities, in the midst of all the goat barbecues, plates of pilau rice, and cups of porridge, my mom stood up to address those who’d joined us. She narrated how back when she still had an accounting job in Nairobi, book peddlers would swing by their Kenya National Assurance offices at Bima House and offer books on credit. I’d buy books and pay for them bit by bit before getting enough cash to make a new purchase, she said. Buying books was a luxury, it meant giving up on other wants such as a nice wardrobe, fancy shoes, a car, etc. In the end, however, mom was convinced that her nerdy investments had been worth it. She finished by urging young mothers to provide resources that inspired their children’s reading and that helped them develop curiosity and intellect.

I, too, would agree. Those books were game changers for my sisters and I. They introduced us to an outside world that was beyond anything we knew. Our family library included a 5-volume collection of Bedtime Stories, as well as Christian stories from across the African continent. I’d rush home from school with my play buddies but once in the house I had 3 tasks to accomplish first. The first thing to do was get out of my school uniform and keep it nicely in preparation for school the next day. The next item on the agenda was a quick snack. By which I mean feasting on whatever had been left over from lunch the same day, or from last night’s dinner. Thinking back, it’s amazing how much food I was able to tack into my stomach. I’d have breakfast before heading out the door in the morning. My school prepared lunch for us at around midday – often rice and beans, or Ugali and beans. At 4:30pm, when I walked into the house from school, my first destination was usually the kitchen: in search of food.  And of course, I’d have dinner later in the evening at around 9pm.

I have distinct memories of sitting at our dining table, a plate of Ugali and pumpkin leave stew in front of me. I’d dip into the food with my right hand, as my left hand held down a book of children’s stories from Malawi. I was only barely aware of my mouth accepting food, chewing, and swallowing. Instead, I was engrossed in the suspense surrounding a protagonist who’d ran into a snake. To make matters worse, this happened when she’d gone down to the river with friends, precisely what her mother had asked NOT to do. I could identify. My snack and reading break often had to be abruptly aborted because dusk was creeping in. And with it, my mother. Before she arrived it was imperative that my sisters and I have finished our to-do list. That usually included things like doing dishes, watering the vegetable garden, feeding our pet rabbits,  making dinner for the dog, lighting a fire and boiling water, and taking a shower.

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