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It's Our Turn to Read

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Michela Wrong's book, It's Our Turn to Eat: The Story of a Kenyan Whistle-Blower is not readily available in Kenya.  As Jeffrey Gettleman explains in The New York Review of Books:

But what could be a sorrier commentary on the state of Kenya today than the fact that it is exceedingly difficult even to find this book in Kenya? It's probably easier to buy an ounce of cocaine in Nairobi--or a stash of illicit ivory--than a copy of It's Our Turn to Eat.

Booksellers are terrified to touch it. The very culture of corruption that Wrong reveals--the vast, ethnic-based patronage networks and the danger of exposing Kenya's leaders--is still as firmly entrenched as ever. Most of the men who fill the pages of her exposé, from the current president, Mwai Kibaki, on down, are still in power. Kenyan booksellers are afraid of provoking them and getting sued for libel. About the only place you can find this book nowadays is in the middle of Nairobi's traffic-plugged streets, sold by street boys with little to lose. The American embassy and a Kenyan church group are subsidizing the sale of the book, trying to get copies in the hands of as many Kenyans as possible, which is how the street boys get theirs, and how I got mine.

Gettleman is right to decry the situation and to view the book's inaccessibility as a symptom of the power structure it condemns.  That said, the underlying context of the book's lack of availability is potentially more debilitating and sad than the political pressure being exerted to keep the book out of Kenyans' hands.

As Kenyans have told me, and as I've mentioned in a previous blog post, "There's no reading culture in Africa."  Discussions with numerous Kenyans, including Tim Banda of Kenya's leading newspaper, The Nation, have suggested several reasons for this state of affairs:

  • books are too expensive
  • literature is not part of the school curriculum in Kenya
  • many Kenyans are only two or three generations removed from oral societies, and habits of literacy haven't taken root
  • people grow up reading only text books
  • reading is a solitary activity that's seen as anti-social in Kenya's communal society
  • most books are for and by white people and don't interest Kenyans
In this context, private book stores exist largely to source text books for schools.  (Indeed, one of the largest general interest bookstores in Nairobi is called Textbook Center.)  General readers are not the bookstores' core constituency, and It's Our Turn to Eat is simply not a book relevant to the mainstay of the bookstores' consumers.  Political expediency aside, most bookstores have as little business incentive to stock It's Our Turn to Eat as they do to carry the collected works of Bertolt Brecht (which, though I've not read It's Our Turn to Eat, might be more politically empowering for Kenya's populace).

Another aspect of Kenya's book-selling market that bears on the issue is the predominance of Indians.  The major booksellers in Nairobi - Textbook Center, Savanni's, Book Stop and African Book Service - are all Indian-owned.  And although they have substantial economic stakes in Kenya, Indians have been largely marginalized by the tribal conflict that characterizes Kenyan politics.  In the current struggle between the dominant Kikuyu tribe and insurgent Luo tribe (represented by President Kibaki and Prime Minister Odinga respectively), the Indians are on the sidelines or behind the scenes.  Given this political posture, bookstores in Kenya may be declining to stock It's Our Turn to Eat, not because of the political risk of angering the politicians criticized in the book, but out of a reflexive impulse on the part of the Indian community in Kenya to avoid injecting itself into tribal tussles.  (That said, I saw It's Our Turn to Eat for sale at Book Stop.)

Finally, making an interesting gloss on the assertion that "there's no reading culture in Kenya," is the indisputable fact that newspaper readership in Kenya is high.  From my informal inquiries on the issue, I found that most people who don't read books nonetheless read the newspaper thoroughly each day.  Kenyans are already familiar with the story of It's Our Turn to Eat from news coverage at the time.  As Gettleman noted (about a different scandal on Kenya's political scene):
  
The front pages of Kenya's biggest papers alternated between pictures of the well-coiffed politicians incredulously denying the charges and people in the hinterland with their rib cages exposed. None of this is secret. There have been countless studies of corruption, thousands of headlines about it, and intense scrutiny of Kenya from the World Bank and organizations like Transparency International, which recently ranked Kenya the most corrupt nation in East Africa. A survey done a few years ago indicated that the average urban Kenyan pays sixteen bribes a month.
Although It's Our Turn to Eat no doubt provides information, perspectives and analysis different from the contemporaneous new reports, to a large extent, Kenyans know what's going on in their country.  They tend to be politically engaged and energized.  (Nonetheless, they are stymied in their options for realizing good governance.)  Knowing this, booksellers in Nairobi may be opting to downplay It's Our Turn to Eat because it's a non-Kenyan (white person)'s account of events in Kenya that everyone has already learned from the country's (black) press.

All of which is to say, notwithstanding Kenya's corruption and political machinations, what's ultimately keeping It's Our Turn to Eat from bookstore shelves may not be strong-arm political tactics, but popular will: Kenyans have yet to say that it's their turn to read.

(Image of Michela Wrong from The New York Times)  

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Wrong, Michela category.

Wordsworth, William is the previous category.

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