KENYA: A READING NATION?
Kenyans do not readA recent visit to a Mombasa beach hotel left me convinced that reading is an alien culture to us, one that does not come naturally to most Kenyans. It just does not seem to be in our blood.
The hotel in question, where one finds almost equal numbers of Kenyans and tourists, presents an interesting contrast in reading habits. Foreigners take to reading much more easily than natives do. At this hotel, the library is almost exclusively a foreigners’ domain. They check in to lend, borrow or exchange books. At the end of their stay, many of them donate their books , enriching the hotel library’s collection. As a result, one may find in this library, besides English, books in languages such as Italian, French and German.
After taking an enjoyable swim under the hot Mombasa sun, most wazungu cherish some quiet, peaceful moment in the cool breeze of the Indian Ocean. But their relaxation appears incomplete until they have a book in hand. Not so their Kenyan counterparts, their reading habits appear to be strictly confined to the scanning of the dailies.
As I reflected on this phenomenon and wondered about the reasons behind it, I was reminded of the words of Thomas Carlyle, that great English essayist, historian, biographer, and philosopher.
If we think about it, all that a university or final highest school can do for us, is still but what the first school began doing----teach us how to read. We learn to read in various
languages, in various sciences; we learn the alphabet and letters of all manners of books. But the place where we are to get knowledge, even theoretic knowledge, is the books themselves. It depends on what we read, after all manners of professors have done their best for us. The true university of these days is a collection of books.”1 (emphasis added)
Why don’t we read?
Why do so many Kenyans shy away from reading books and thus deny themselves a chance to gain a true education? In a country that is well known for its passion and obsession with the education of children, why are so many people, including university graduates, indifferent to the one key that opens the doors to true education? Why is reading considered a “foreign culture” in a continent which was among the earliest to employ the art of writing and reading (in countries like Egypt and Ethiopia) and which is reputed to have produced some of the greatest philosophers and theologians (such as St. Augustine) that walked the face of the earth? How is it that Kenya has not developed a reading culture even though it is reputed to be one of the countries with a highly “educated” populace in Eastern Africa? Since its inception last year, “free primary education” has added millions of additional youth into the school system. These are people who, otherwise, would not have had any access to primary education. Now, they form part of the many millions of young people who are learning the art of reading. What impact will this have on our reading culture?
And if indeed we suffer from lack of a reading culture, whose responsibility is it to develop such a culture? What are schools doing to inculcate the value of reading in their students? Where do the universities (and there are many public and private universities in the country) come in? How do we go about changing peoples’ attitudes towards reading? Or do we, in fact, need to change? They say you cannot move forward unless you first establish where and why you are stuck in the present. Perhaps we should start by asking why we find ourselves in the present situation as far as the reading culture is concerned.
A commonly cited reason (which is sometimes put forward as an excuse) for our weak reading culture is the African reliance on the spoken word. It is often argued that our lack of interest in reading is attributable to our strong oral tradition. Now, there is no denying that in the absence of written records, Africans developed a highly effective oral tradition. This was necessary for survival. Without the luxury of written diaries, notes and reminders, Africans had no alternative but to commit all important matters to memory.
For this reason, for example, everyone knew his/her genealogy by heart and recited it often. But, that was then. Things have since changed and in these days of the mobile phone this argument does not seem to be particularly persuasive.
Others have argued that the reason Africans do not read is because they cannot afford to buy books. This argument is clearly a non-starter. One has only to observe the amount of money that people spend in bars, restaurants and other places of entertainment to see that poverty is not the real issue. It is more a question of priorities, a question of values than of affordability. True, people need to have provided for some basics before they get to the level where they can buy and read books. No one is likely to sacrifice daily bread for books. The priority here too is clear. However, one does not have to have money to develop a healthy reading habit. Public and private libraries exist to take care of these needs. But it is surprising how few people visit these institutions for the purpose of reading or checking out books. All this seems to say that the problem is deeper than money. It is a question of attitude more than affordability.
And do I hear you say that reading is a foreign habit that was brought to us by the mzungu? Perhaps it is but let me remind you that drinking beer in bars and watching television are foreign habits as well.
The joke is sometimes told of the rich father-in-law who, on the wedding day, presented the young bridal couple with the gift of a Bible. Assuming this to be just another bible, the couple placed the gift book on the shelf and never got to open it. In the meantime, their life together was financially very trying. Unknown to them, the father had inserted a fat cheque among the pages of the Bible . The value of the cheque was such that it could comfortably have provided for all their financial needs for many, many years. And for many, many years the couple did not open their Bible and so did not discover the hidden treasure. It was only many years later that the father, thoroughly disillusioned by the couple’s lifestyle and apparent want, demanded an account of his wedding present. One can imagine the wonder, surprise, shock, and regret that followed as the now old couple reached for the dusty book on the shelf and finally retrieved their wedding present!
The story seems to fit singularly well in our situation where the majority of people who consider themselves educated stopped reading the day they graduated from college or high school. I am reminded of a student who jokingly commented: “If you wish to hide any valuable things from an African, all you need to do is place it in a book.”
Some apologists have blamed the dearth of relevant literature on the lack of interest among readers. Perhaps the reason for this is that there is not much relevant Kenyan literature, books written for Africans/Kenyans by Africans/Kenyans which are sensitive to their culture.
But this is argument overlooks at least two important facts. First, there are many books which contain universal messages, books which address a message to all humanity regardless of their geographical, racial, tribal, economic, social, religious or political background. I am thinking of such simple books as Norman Vincent Peale’s The power of positive thinking,2 an influential book which has benefited millions of people throughout the world: men and women, black, white, and brown, rich and poor, high and low, believers and unbelievers. It would appear that at a certain level, all human beings have common needs and that a skillful author can transcend the confines of his/her culture to address these universal needs.
Secondly, as a poet has said “no one is an island.” We live in a small world, the global village, and we all need to know what happens to our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world. We are part and parcel of the larger world. Hence the need to read books and keep informed. Only in this way can we keep abreast with the fast- growing knowledge in all fields of human endeavor.
Coming back to relevant literature, there is a growing body of literature produced by our own budding writers. Some of these works, like those of Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Francis Imbuga and others have found their way into our schools and are being used as literature set books (a similar development has taken place in Kiswahili). In a few cases, some authors have gone the extra mile and have written in their native languages: Kikuyu, Dholuo, Kimeru, etc for the common person. Not even this has provoked the Kenyan reader. Apart from set books that are used as class textbooks, there appears to be very little interest in books. Very few people buy books for the purpose of reading and learning from them. It would appear that Kenyans either know too much (hence no need to learn more) or just do not believe that books contain anything of value. Whichever way, our local writers have not been enthusiastically received by the general public. Could this also be part of the strange philosophy by which Kenyans are known to devour anything that bears a “made in …” label at the expense of their own locally produced goods? Is this in any way related to the common behavior by Kenyans of worshipping everything foreign while despising their own products, a practice that is largely responsible for the death of indigenous art? Could this be an extension of what happens in the related cultural fields of music, drama, literature and dress? Why is Nigerian drama doing so well on our television and videos at a time when our own local artistes are forced into oblivion for lack of public interest in their work?
The argument based on inadequacies of local public libraries would crumble in the face of the fact that even the existing libraries are not adequately patronized. True, there should be many more public libraries established especially in the rural areas. More importantly, these libraries need to be properly equipped with books that address the needs of their customers. It makes no sense to open such libraries if no one will make use of them. Once again, we are back to the egg and the chicken situation. Public libraries will not do much good unless there is a demand for them. But demand will not arise unless people are willing to read books.
Another reason why we do not read is simply that we are lazy. I sought to know why my daughter (who is a student in one of our public universities) does not read anything outside her prescribed course textbooks. Her answer was that she just does not like reading because it takes too much of her time. However, I notice that she has a lot of time to watch television programs. By implication, watching TV and videos does not consume time in the same way that reading does. Indeed, she argues that she would watch all that stuff that is in books if only it could be presented on TV or in video form! This strange argument, unfortunately, represents a real shift of interests in our youth. The modern generation is characterized by a desire for everything that is easy, comfortable, exciting. This is a generation that detests hard-work (unless that translates into fun), sacrifice, or hardship. Unfortunately, for most people reading demands sacrifice, delayed gratification, discipline, just the things that our young people generally want to avoid! Who among parents of teenagers has not heard the now-all too familiar claim “being bored”? Our youth are bored by everything around them. The food we eat in our houses often “bores” them. They are “bored” by the friends we keep. We “bore” them when we insist on doing certain things in a certain way. In short, everything that is not in their style or taste is “boring” and that includes reading books.
Watching TV is easier, requires less energy, less effort, is less demanding and therefore less “boring” than having to take up a book and patiently read through it. The sad thing about all this is that very few of the programs that appear on our TV sets are meant to instruct, build or construct. Only a small proportion of these programs can be said to be “educational”. Unfortunately, a great percentage of these programs add nothing to an individual’s growth. Indeed, many of them are positively destructive. Now, of course, we must admit that not all books are informative and educational either. It all depends on the reader’s choice. One may choose to read a useful and constructive book, one that may contribute to the reader’s growth and character or to read some useless material which may not add anything to his/her general education. The reader has the choice. This liberty is however, lacking in the case of the TV shows where, by and large, the audience has little choice to make as far as the programs are concerned. The TV viewer chooses which one of the programs on air he/she will watch at a given time. That is the extent of his/her freedom of choice. The decision on what to watch is based on what is on offer at what station at what time. The book reader on the other hand, may decide what type of book to read, when, for how long, how many times. His/her choice is therefore, more real, more deliberate and more meaningful.
We have so far avoided alluding to the contribution of the school in producing a “reading culture”. A student who has been through school for eight, twelve or sixteen years should surely have learned one thing: how to read. How is it then that after so many years of study many students graduate from primary school, secondary school or even university and have not developed a reading culture? I can only find one explanation for this reality and that is the fact that our schools are not interested in teaching students to read. It is well known that our schools (most of them at any rate) exist for only one reason: to teach students how to pass exams. Shameful as this may sound, it is indeed the reality on the ground for many of our schools. As long as the students are doing well in their exams, most teachers feel that they have done their job well and that they do not owe their students anything. The teachers, therefore, make it their business to ensure that students read their textbooks for the purpose of passing exams.
Now, if we know anything at all about teaching and learning, it is the fact that students always try to live up to the expectations of their teachers. If teachers expect much from their students, they will normally get much. If, on the other hand, they expect little, they will get even less.3
It seems clear that our teachers expect their students to study their textbooks, pass their exams and forget the rest. And that is exactly what happens. Little wonder that at the end of their school cycle many students make a bonfire, burn their school books and celebrate the end of their enslavement by swearing never again to read a book in their lives. Schools do not teach us to read beyond examinations. For many who have completed school, the sight of a book conjures up ugly memories of being forced to cram and memorize stuff they never understood but which they needed to reproduce if they hoped to pass their exams. In other words, the very schools that were supposed to teach students the art and value of reading, only succeeded in teaching them to hate the business of reading books.
If they did not learn the value of books in school, and they did not learn that value from their parents, why would we expect them to develop a reading culture?
In their anxiety to teach the students how to pass exams, teachers have only given them a day’s supply of fish instead of teaching them how to do their own fishing for life. How very sad!
We all need to read Books
Although reading good books has many advantages, I will only discuss three of them. One of the most important reasons for reading books is the desire to add to our existing knowledge.
Books are powerful vehicles through which ideas, opinions and attitudes are shared, transformed and disseminated. Today, most people take books for granted and so fail to see what a wonder a good book is. Most of us have grown up seeing books around us. At school, books are part and parcel of our life. We read school texts as a matter of routine and may never have stopped to give a thought to the miracle that is a book. Here is a reminder from Thomas Carlyle:
“Of all the things which man can do or make here below, by far the most momentous, wonderful, and worthy are the things we call books.”
No one seems to have appreciated these things more than did Erasmus. He stated:
When I get a little money, I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.
A little exaggerated you might say, but clearly, Erasmus must have known something about the value of books that most Kenyans don’t.
To begin to appreciate the value of books, one could ask the question: What things do I know that I would not have known if I had not read them in books? An honest answer to this question may reveal our true appreciation and the value that we place on books.
Traditionally, books have held a hidden treasure. As Milton observed:
A good book is the precious life blood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose for a life beyond.
But only the humble man or woman who acknowledges his/her ignorance can truly appreciate the value of a good book. Socrates, the great Greek philosopher, was not ashamed to confess his ignorance4 and Plato, his student, taught that a wise ignorance is an essential part of knowledge. These two philosophers can teach us the humility that is a necessary prerequisite for the pursuit of knowledge. To seek knowledge, we must first acknowledge our ignorance and our willingness to learn.5
Many people who fail to benefit from reading books may do so because they do not believe that they should be seeking knowledge. Often, such people may regard books as nothing but pastime. A little education may be all that such an individual needs to open his/her eyes to the “acres of diamonds” lying right in their own backyard.
It is amazing how much knowledge we can acquire from books. Almost any subject under the sun is covered in some book or other. No matter how specialized our need for knowledge or how practical our need to know, there will be a book to address our needs.
Books teach us many things in ways that no human teacher can. And they do so at our
own pace and convenience. Books are truly amazing discoveries/inventions. It is this recognition of the immense usefulness of books that has led some people to argue that we can never pay for a book. The ideas contained in books are usually worth much more than the few shillings that we pay for their ownership.
François Fenelon has expressed the value of books in a dramatic manner:
If all the crowns of Europe were placed at my disposal on condition that I should abandon my books and studies, I should spurn the crowns and stand by the books.
The most obvious justification for reading books then is to add to our existing stock of knowledge. In a world where knowledge grows at a supersonic speed, we all need to catch up with the rest of the world if we are to remain relevant. Anyone who does not read books will soon find himself/herself out of touch with the real world.
Another very good reason for developing the reading culture is to seek individual self- improvement. According to William James:
The greatest discovery of my generation is the fact that a human being can alter his life by simply altering his thinking.
The power of thought is nothing short of a new discovery. About 2000 years ago, St. Paul writing to the Romans urged his readers “not to conform themselves to the standards of the world around them but rather to be transformed by the renewing of their minds”. (Romans 12: 1-2). This thinking was not altogether new. Five hundred years before him, another man who is reputed to have been the wisest man ever to walk the face of the earth had come to the same conclusion. “As man thinketh”, says Solomon, “so is he”. Proverbs
If William James, the great American philosopher and psychologist is right, and if indeed, our thoughts (ideas, opinions, attitudes) determine the kind of people that we become, then surely there is need to pay close attention to the thoughts that we allow to cross our minds and influence our being. Equally, it would be unforgivable if we had the chance to influence our thinking in some positive direction and failed to do so because we were too lazy, indifferent or unconcerned to read a book that could otherwise change our lives.
In his now famous book The seven habits of highly effective people Stephen Covey describes a principle which he calls “sharpening the saw.” According to this, all people have the responsibility and the duty to “sharpen” themselves by continually working on their talents or potential to ensure that the individual turns out to be the very best that he/she could be. This is the principle of self-development or self-improvement that leads to complete self-fulfillment. According to the author, this can be achieved through reading relevant books and journals, attending seminars, workshops, listening to motivational talks, watching relevant tapes and listening to audiotapes.
One of the most common obstacles to success in our chosen fields is having a wrong or inappropriate attitude. Many people with wrong attitudes have no idea that they have a problem that needs addressing. One of the easiest ways to check on one’s attitude and improve self-motivation is reading about it in selected books. Books have the power not only to inform but also to change individuals in ways that nothing else can. That is why history is replete with examples of men and women whose lives were completely transformed because they read a particular book.
Yet another reason why we should read books is for re-creative purposes. Not every book yields knowledge or changes lives. Some books are written for entertainment and should be employed as such. Reading a book (a novel, drama, poetry, science fiction, or something light-hearted) can be just as refreshing as watching a movie, dancing or socializing with friends and is often much more convenient and cheaper.
Unfortunately, very few people in Kenya have developed the idea of reading as a hobby or a recreation. Hence the difference between the reading cultures of the local tourists and the foreign tourists at the Mombasa beach hotel referred to earlier.
The idea of “sharpening the saw” holds each individual responsible for his/her own growth and development. Everyone must take responsibility for his/her own attitudes, strengths, weaknesses. It is all too easy to blame the school and the teachers for not teaching us to enjoy reading. We can easily blame society for not playing a more positive role in ensuring a more positive reading culture. However, our life is our own and each one of us must, in the final analysis, take responsibility for our situation. So the damage has been done. What can I do now to redeem what is left of my life?
What can I as an individual do to change the things that I do not like in my life? What can I do to improve my life? What can I do to take greater advantage of the books that surround me everywhere I go? How you answer this question could determine what kind of person you will be.
Welcome to the world of books and enjoy the greatest discovery known to humanity.
1. Quoted in Og Mandino’s University of success. New York: Bantam Books, 1982, p .xiii.
2. Norman Vincent Peale has also written Positive thinking for young people.
3. A powerful experiment carried out in San Francisco’s Bay area by Dr. Robert Rosenthal and reported in his book, Pygmalion in the classroom, describes how the expectations of teachers have an enormous impact on the performance of their students. Dr. Rosenthal found out that if students perceived that they were expected to do well, they did much better than they would have in the absence of those expectations.
4. “All that I really know is that I know nothing.” Socrates.
5. Cf. George Bernard Shaw : “ The little I know I owe to my ignorance.”