When I was making my reading list this year, I thought I knew. I had all these books I thought would give me the information I wanted. Current books and semi-current books.
But I knew my goal. I wanted to know where we came from. Why we are the way we are. And what’s the way forward given our history.
And to do that, I would start with Kenya. Though most books in that reading list were political, politics wasn’t my main intention, it just so happens that a book on music of East Africa is less known than, Facing Mount Kenya by Kenyatta.
So I asked around on where I could find places with old information. And guess what? Or was I the only one without this information? Kenya Archives, that same archives that is the meeting point of all Nairobians, actually does have old ‘things’. Books, films, newspapers etc. I had been to archives many times, inside that is, but I didn’t know that I could get a 1980 newspaper there. I didn’t know that another section besides the display section existed.
Anyway, so one of these fine days this week, I was waiting for a friend outside Archives. And I thought to myself, since I was already planning to become a member, so as to access those archived ( pun intended) materials, why not pop in right now?
As of that moment, the only information was what my friend had told me. That you pay a small fee to be a member so as to access the materials. I was directed to the first floor, where I found an old man. You know there is outside here, where you find old men. And then there is this certain look that old librarians have. One, I’ve never seen a fat one. Always thin. And two, they wear old clothes that are ill fitting. And reading spectacles. Like even if you met that man outside there, you would know they are a walking collection of information.
So I greeted him and went on to explain that I needed some old newspapers ( its the first thing that came to mind to ask) and a membership to visit often. He first gave me this ‘lecture’ of how I should only visit when I have a specific research to do, not anytime I want since they cater for all Kenyans. It was all in good jest though seeing how empty the seating section was, though its quite small anyway.
And secondly, I shouldn’t register as a member till he confirms whether what I want is there. So he went. And as I sat down I realised I was in for a long ride, unlike what I had thought that I would just pop in and go.
So after a long search, a really long search, my old man comes back. With a single tray. And he’s like, I found the newspapers for the whole year you wanted.
In front of me, were this small black rectangular disks. Like you remember tapes? The black things we used to watch before CDs came? Now like a 1/3rd the size of that. And black all round. Written months on top.
I had never seen anything like it in my life. Like I asked for newspapers, wharra this? Apparently they are microfilms or something of the sort. I’ve never felt so young and out of date with ‘alternative’ technology. I felt as if I was seeing a live dinasour when I asked for a lizard. Like I had absolutely no idea what those things were.
So another guy explained that you use microfilm readers and I think they have them there at archives. Since I had already kept my friend for over half an hour, I simply registered and decided to come back later. Ooh, and I almost forgot, the registration fee for a whole year is 200shillings only. Yep! 200 only.
So today, I decided to go check out the oldest library in Kenya. This is despite having a school ID that grants me access to my university’s library. I discovered that most university libraries, including mine, do not permit one to borrow books from the African section. Sounds weird, right? That you can borrow a John Grisham and Allan Edgar Poe book, but don’t you dare think of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s book or Mariama Ba. How will we ever move to a population that knows its history written by its own people if accessing that is hard, but accessing what a white man says about Black people which could be true but most likely biased, is easy?
Anyway, that’s what led me to the MacMillan Memorial Library. Of all libraries, this one seemed like the one that would have a lot of African books. And maybe i would be allowed to borrow. So I walk in and the library has this majestic old kind of look to it. Especially the entrance. Feels one of those old courts or palace’s entrance.
But inside its thoroughly disappointing. I think its in the exact condition it was in 1929. No repairs. No changes made. The seats are still few and the books fewer than those we had in our high school Library. But i’m aware that African books are in the upper section.
Again, I find my typical old librarian with an oversized suit. He indulges me but pronounces such high fee for the Africana section that at first I think this man is out to either con me or lock me out of accessing that section. In my head, we are talking of Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Okot P’bitek kind of books. So after some negotiations, he offers to allow me to go sample what is there first and then I come we talk.
My people!! Have you ever seen a 1940 newspaper for real? Like for real. Everything in the colonial times is there. In actual form. Unlike Archives’s microfilms, this is for real. You should have seen my mind for the first few seconds. Like what on earth!?
And or But, the room is old. Everything about it is old. From the materials to the roof to the dust that moves anytime you move anything. Like that room personifies the word ‘Old ‘ so well.
Kumbe we are not done. So he tells me, there is another section where the books are. I legit didn’t feel like leaving my old room. So we move across a verandah..from where we can directly see the Supreme courts of Kenya from where we are standing. Like it’s only a road between the two. Kinda gives you a glimpse of the old Nairobi before lots of the skyscrapers came to view.
So anyway, he shows this room where I find a white man poring through those binded newspapers, while i’m left to see if the exorbitant money i’m being asked for is worth it. By the time i’m opening the second book, it is clear as sunshine, that some of these books were last opened over 50 years ago. Literally. The dust is only on top of the book, like the upper part, the pages inside are spotlessly clean, the sides that were pressed by other books are also clean, while the upper side of the book is filled with a layer of dust. Like I had to first remove that layer to open the book.
And no. My Ngugi wa Thiong’o wasn’t found either. The books in this section are old. And important to Africa. Like if you need to research anything about Prehistory of Africa, books whites wrote about Africa before they came to colonize Africa, books written as colonization was going on, the tribes and kingdoms of Africa, the drums, music and folktales of Africa, the people of Egypt and Ethiopia, kina Mesopotamia, trade in Africa, slave trade..etc.
All those books. Books, more books and more books. All about Africa. Like any African, can do their research there and get accurate information. This is because, most books written about Africa, did not specialize on specific states by then. They talked of Africa as a whole and maybe inside talked of south, western or eastern Africa.
I love knowledge, I love information, and I’ve been seeking it. But I’ve never felt so overwhelmed by information or knowledge. Not even when I went to Alliance Girls. Yaani I asked for a small stream of knowledge , or rather, its what I thought existed out there, and here I am, in a mega ocean.
So I walked around, flabbergasted. Dumbstruck. Overwhelmingly excited. Like the kind of excitement that had gone overboard until its just cool. Gawking. Thankfully I was alone in those book aisles. Eyes popping out.
Everything, including animals of Serengeti, animals of Congo..and not as of year 2000 and something. Nope, we are talking of 1930s books. Books talking of Pate, Zanzibar and Sultans. Others explaining racism. Others talking of hut tax and how it should be increased in Kenya. Others talking of Mzilikazi from Zulu huko South Africa. Others with Kenya’s first draft on disability. Yaani the first document that the government of Kenya used to recognize people with disability as people with rights. Many books of white people’s journey into Africa. Many others on how colonization was treating Maasais with more liberties than they deserved by taking half their land and fencing off a small parcel for them to all herd their over half a million cows. Were Britons really okay in the head during that time? Like were they fully sane?
Anyway, so after an hour I sat down. To think about my whole life that has been a lie. Like what exactly have I been doing with my life before now?
I even found a 1996 newspaper article of Jeff Koinange. Man is old. And man has been around for years. He was the cover of those celebrity magazines found inside Friday newspapers. Titled “Who is Jeff koinange?”
I have finally left , to go think about my life elsewhere. But what I know for sure, is that like a long lost prodigal son, I am finally back home. And I am home to stay.