When Promoting Reading in Rural Kenya Becomes Fun
The Literary Caravan
Children reading from one of the books donated by the Literary Caravan. © Julian Manjahi Literary events have become popular in Kenya. They happen in open spaces, closed spaces, in schools and in museums, and take varied dimensions. A clear indication of how the literary space has expanded over time, enveloping all ages. More organisations are now involved in promoting the reading culture to complement government efforts. How do you make such events enjoyable and involve those who are far from literary spaces?
Goethe-Institut partnered with various organisations to explore the idea of a Literary Caravan to reach young readers in primary and secondary schools. It was a three-day ride in the countryside from the winding roads of Machakos just 60 km from Nairobi, through the picturesque plains of Molo in the Rift Valley, to the quiet rainforest in Kakamega about 350 km from the capital, with events in-between the safari. The main aim was to foster the love for reading and equip students with creative writing skills.
The road to Machakos
The journey began right in the centre of Nairobi on May 27. Represented were the All for Books initiative, Writers Guild Kenya, Write Academy, Kenya National Library Services, Nsemia Publishers, and Storymoja Africa. Goethe-Institut’s Head of Information and Library Department Elizabeth Wichenje was the lead coordinator.
Storybooks donated by All for Books in conjunction with Moran Publishers occupied the whole back seat of the 24-seater minibus. The group of storytellers and authors was happy for a moment to leave behind the traffic jam of Nairobi and explore the open, stony and sparsely populated Machakos countryside. The destination was St John’s Kangii Secondary School.
There is a thing about creatives and the countryside, as the journey to Kangii would show. The longer the travel, the greater the marvel. You only realize you are lost when what was supposed to be a two-hour journey turns into a forty-year safari. You missed your turn – you know it – but you cannot tell where that turn is located. It is tucked away somewhere among the fruitless mango trees and scrub. A herdsman along the highway is godsent, leaving his zebu cows in the care of the lead cow with a jingle bell around the neck, to come help you find your way.
Literary caravan on the way to Machakos. © Julian Manjahi “Always trust the shepherd,” someone in the bus says.
But the team does the exact opposite, ignoring the herdsman’s direction to turn back – until it was too late. The beauty of getting lost in the countryside is that the locals assure you that you are on the right track, point just ahead and swear you are only 100 metres to your destination which is after an unseen bend, and six kilometres later you surprisingly reach your destination. You cheer yourself up and feel like a great discoverer who never reasoned Google Maps would have helped.
A cocktail of art
12 secondary schools had gathered at St John’s Kangii. The event itself a cocktail of art. Spurred on by international artist and MC for the day, Wangari the Storyteller, talent oozed from a select group of performers. Simiyu thumbed the six stringed lyre known as litungu in Luhya language where it originated. He performed hearty renditions of popular Luhya songs you wouldn’t doubt where his future lay.
“Not very long ago, entertainment was frowned upon as a career. But today, many people have built their lives with such talent; we are proud of Lupita Nyong’o,” Stephen Mau, the Director of Library Services at the Ministry of Sports and Culture advised the students.
There were dramatised oral narratives and poetry inspired by contemporary themes. Anne Musau, 16, from the host school recited a short elegy, ‘You promised me heaven’, which began with a fantastical romance story that quickly slid into femicide – a young lover ‘sent their beloved to heaven’ once heartbreak struck.
A student plays the Litungu, a traditional Musical instrument from the Luhya community. © Julian Manjahi There was also focus on how knowledge of mother tongue promotes creativity. Students, teachers and the team from Nairobi engaged in riddles and tongue twisters in various ethnic languages. They learned the opening and responding calls for riddles, the answers to age-old riddles, and the meanings of sayings in various languages.
Try this Kiswahili tongue twister:
‘Babake Haji, mamake Haji akija mwambie Haji haji manake Haji hajaja.’
The performances laid a firm foundation for the creative writing workshops that were led by authors Jennie Marima, Vera Omwocha, Hillary Namunyu, Patrick Ngugi and journalist Khainga O’Okwemba, the presenter creator of the popular Book Café literary programme that has aired on Kenya Broadcasting Corporation for many years.
“This is one of the most illuminating literary events for schools that I have ever attended. Nothing recorded is going to be cut out during the editing process,” said O’Okwemba.
“Writing a story in a group helped me learn various aspects of creative writing, which we never learn in the classroom. We created very different stories from the same characters and setting, and we learnt how to use language and stylistic devices. My composition skills just improved greatly,” said Thomas, 17, a form four student at St Peter’s Kwandoo Secondary school.
“The skills I’ve learnt are not just important for creative writing, but general essay writing. I want to pursue journalism and this event was timely,” said Janet, 17, a form three student at Kabaa Mixed Secondary School.
A warm experience in cold Molo, and the rainforest expedition
Located in the heart of the Rift Valley about 220 km west of Machakos, Molo was a little colder than Machakos. However, the enthusiasm of the 800 pupils at Molo Academy lent artistic warmth to the caravan.
“I was happy to meet the authors whom we only see on books, and learn about the five W’s and H: who, what, why, how, where. This makes writing so easy,” Anne, a Class four pupil, said.
More writers and trainers joined the caravan on day two and three. The children came up with complex worlds in their stories, some with flying cars and pink elephants, illustrating how reading boosts imagination.
Wangari the Storyteller performed a folktale titled The Tortoise and the Magic Drum. The tale told of the danger of relying on magic and luck rather than hard work. In the story, animals in a forest depended on the tortoise’s magical drum which brought forth whatever they asked for, until one day tortoise fell sick. The now lazy animals greedily mishandled the drum and when it burst, it spelt the beginning of problems that almost led to their annihilation.
Students singing along with Wangari the Storyteller during the literary festival. © Julian Manjahi To wrap up the three-day literary expedition were events in Kakamega bringing together ten primary schools at St Joseph’s Academy. Schools in this quiet town are just a stone throw away from each other, surrounded by lush green giant trees for skyscrapers, which form a canopy stretching into the only rainforest in Kenya. A perfect environment for a book lover. As if the joy of receiving books and attending creative writing workshops wasn’t motivational enough, the children could not have enough of Storyteller George Chunga’s dramatic performance of Ondiek Marach. The story was about a clan that was forbidden to eat Ondiek Marach the hyena, but what about chasing it, or killing it, or … tasting it?
George Chunga’s dramatic performance of 'Ondiek Marach'. © Julian Manjahi In all the three events in Machakos, Molo and Kakamega, teacher librarians received training from veteran librarian Muthoni Kibandi and Writers Guild CEO Gabriel Ndinda. The importance of getting learners to use the storybooks was emphasized. It is common for teachers to deny children books with the excuse that the books would get torn. “If you see a dog eared storybook, then know it is being used. A book that looks new means it is not being read,” said Muthoni.
Over 1,000 storybooks and other stationery were distributed to school libraries, and they were never enough for all the schools that participated. The quest to collect more books continues, and also perhaps for yet more caravans.
About 1,500 pupils and students, 40 teacher-librarians and 15 schools in 3 counties were reached.