Kenya Day 5/6: Kwani Press, Bookstores and Litchi Juice

I’ve now been here a week this time. The hectic travel schedule leave me disoriented and immune to the passage of time.

I finally got the Remmy Ongala CD’s for my friend The driver who delivered them to me is excited. “Do you like music?” he asks, not knowing the the CD’s aren’t for me. “Yeah, of course, who doesn’t?” I ask to which he starts beaming and listing off the names of a hundred enticing musicians and groups I’ve never heard of.

“I don’t like that white Christian music that the religious people are always listening to.” See, Kenya has an odd identity complex. While a lot of Kenyans are comfortable in their own skin, some breathe a mixture of white admiration and self-loathing, the worst of which is encapsulated in the saccharine white sounds of suburban Christian America. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs.

Can’t they at least check out some Al Green?

As evidenced by the marijuana leaves and the names of old-school reggae superstars embossed on the sides of the ubiquitous matatu, not everyone shares this love of the worst of American culture. Those missionaries from Iowa must be proud, though.

But I digress. I’ve become addicted to reading books from Kwani Press, a publisher devoted to present day Kenyan writers. It’s unfortunate that while rural poverty and warfare gets so much airtime in the Western Press, the dynamic and exciting arts scenes of Nairobi gets almost none. These are folks carving out a space in a complicated country which is sadly unaware of their mostly obscure output.

The efforts are mostly self-funded, with small doses of funds injected by well-meaning international donors. The language is as informed by the West as much as it rejects much of it, favoring a homegrown vocabulary plied from the multitude of modalities that a complicated country like Kenya has to offer.

It is exhilarating in every respect but I’m still trying to figure out how to connect with the Nairobi metal scene, which, happily, exists.

The airport bookstores consistently stock books from Kenyan writers, next to old copies of Marie Claire and US Weekly. I am looking for the latest copy of the Kwami Writers’ Anthology in the Kisumu airport bookstore. The store clerk excitedly taps me on the shoulder and pushes a giant, plastic wrapped tome in my hand. “This is the latest one.”

“Do you read?” I ask, quickly rephrasing the question which sounds horribly like I’m asking if she can read into “I mean, do you like reading a lot?”

“What do you recommend?”

“Ngugi Wa Thiong’O, you should read him.” She’s suggesting the great Kenyan academic who wrote “Decolonising the Mind: Literary Studies in African Universities,” which sounds either reactionary or overly academic, but is actually a fascinating and reasoned piece on constructing national literatures in formerly colonized states, no easy task.

I remark that I’m a great fan of Thiongo’O but don’t push her for anything else for fear of being annoying because I seem to be really good at being annoying.

I’m looking up and I’m noticing that someone has drawn swastikas on the foreheads of all the white people in the in-flight magazine for Air Kenya.

There’s Litchi juice included in the lunch the attendant just passed me. Who drinks Litchi juice? I’m thinking that no one does. After pulling all of the orange, apple and mango out, the remainders are then distributed to hapless air travelers.

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About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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