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Fighting back against Kenya’s alleged ‘non-reading’ culture

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A couple of weeks ago, I ran a creative writing session in a school with about twenty 10 and 11 year old’s. This is the place where I do voluntary work about once a fortnight and the kinds of writing exercises I get the kids to do is received with anything ranging from incredulity to liberation to pure terror (the Kenyan education system, also known as 8-4-4, is known for rote learning, nutty numbers of exams and not much outlet for creativity.) That’s ok, I just try to run with whatever comes up and encourage them to get something on paper by the end of the session, stressing that there is categorically no right or wrong.

This particular day, I took a box of books in with me and we did my ‘First Line of a Story’ exercise, whereby each child is given a book and then in small groups they discuss which first line they like best, and why. As a class, we go on to discuss different elements of what makes a great first line and how we need to instantly capture the attention of the reader and reel them in, before everybody has a go at writing their own corker of a first line.

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Let me digress a little here to say that it is very, very hard to get hold of decent, affordable books here in Kenya. I’ve often heard people say that there simply isn’t a reading culture here, one of the reasons for this being because of the tradition that has been passed orally from one generation to another so that this oral folklore remains well and truly alive in such a way that in other cultures it is all but dead. I know, for example, that amongst the Kikuyu (Kenya’s largest ethnic group), until a couple of generations ago, it was completely normal and expected that each and every member of the tribe from a very young age could recite the names and stories of each of their ancestors going all the way back to Mumbi, the figure regarded as the ‘mother’ of the Kikuyu.

Don’t get me wrong, the art of storytelling is valuable and necessary. Yet isn’t it a little (or a lot?) defeatist to say there isn’t a reading culture here, and more than that, it can be used as an excuse for the relevant government departments to not encourage reading and essentially, provide books to school children. Back to the class of kids I was working with that day, let me tell you that getting them to relinquish the books at the end of the session was HARD. They all crowded round the box, overjoyed to be given free reign, for a short while at least, to all these books and new worlds. This was not a class full of children interested only in their oral tradition of stories, these were kids excited and overwhelmed by books, something we so take for granted in the West. I’d argue that by putting a great story into the hands of any child, the world over, a door is being opened to possibility, to imagination and to empowerment.

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From Oliver Jeffers The Heart and the Bottle

On that note, it’s brilliant to see that here in Kenya non-profit organisations exist to counter this ‘non-reading’ culture. Kudos to both of them, Grab A Book and Start A Library.

A tiny bit more about them, as taken from their websites:

Grab A Book

Carolyne Kimari (founder) is a 2013 Kenyan Spark* Changemaker. Her organisation, Grab a Book, works to set up libraries in slums and rural areas providing children with access to quality age-appropriate books and after-school and weekend tutoring.

Start A Library

Start A Library is a Reading Revolution campaign initiated by Storymoja intended to: 1. Excite children about reading for pleasure through our Read Aloud events and Reading clubs 2. Increase access to books by forming or stocking libraries in Primary Schools. There are more than 20,000 primary schools in Kenya without libraries. In two years, SAL has started 51 libraries in schools and centres across Kenya.

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Psssst…whilst I’m on this particular bandwagon, though not in Kenya (but Malawi, Zambia, Ecuador & Galapagos) I couldn’t not mention the fabulous Book Bus that trundles around delivering books to schools and inspiring children to read. LOVE IT. Particularly because all these buses are gorgeously decorated with iconic Quentin Blake paintings – could it get any better?

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