Print culture

Except perhaps in Nairobi, it seems to be very difficult to buy any books in Kenyan 'bookshops' other than

  1. Christian literature

  2. school textbooks

  3. crappy 'How to Succeed in Business' self-help books

Very occasionally there's the odd second-hand Robert Ludlum thriller, and there are some street vendors who have small, eclectic selections of very old, dirty torn novels which I think were probably donated to some 'charity collection' somewhere in Europe or the US (so far I've found Tuck Everlasting and a 1968 edition of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). But there's clearly no real demand for fiction or serious non-fiction, and no adequate distribution.

This is a major contrast to other Majority World countries like India, which seems to have an incredibly diverse and demotic print culture. On every street corner in Delhi you can buy anything from Mein Kampf to old copies of Subaltern Studies (actually, Mein Kampf seems to be particularly prevalent – maybe India gets sent all the copies confiscated from schoolkids and neo-Nazis in Germany).

The few attempts I've seen to compensate for this here - like this community library in Sipili, funded by Bakewell Rotary Club - are basically rubbish. (I'm sorry if any outraged Derbyshire Rotarians are reading this, but you should know).

Sipili's community library consists of a few shelves with a rag-bag of old charity-shop-style 'collected' books from Europe, basically consisting of dog-eared John Connolly thrillers and 1960s geography GCSE textbooks, rather than any systematic selection of decent books. I assume that the cost of shipping books is also very high. In India the majority of commercially available books are printed by India's massive publishing industry. In Kenya there seems to be fairly little major commercial printing or publishing industry anywhere. Maybe there's a larger publishing industry in other East African countries which distribute books across the region – I'm not sure.

On the demand side, though, I don't think the difference is to do with differential literacy rates: adult literacy is currently running at about 74% in Kenya (compared to around 61% in India), and both the 'How to Bring God into your Life and Grow Your Business' books and the two main newspapers seem to go down a storm everywhere. I genuinely think Kenya has an impoverished literary culture which isn't simply to do with economic poverty – India's the counter-factual. Maybe it's something to do with a hollowed-out middle class? Or a lack of an established pre-colonial print culture (unlike India)?

Any thoughts that are a bit less implicitly racist than these?

1 comment:

  1. yeah i have no idea. but nigeria was similar. some of the christian books are really quite entertaining, though.

    i think possibly the pre-colonial print culture thing might be more empirically accurate, but i don't know. because there's some interesting literature coming out of, say, nigeria, even though in general the books you see being sold around aren't often high quality. but it is better i guess than east africa, when i think about it. quite interesting.