Kenyans Don’t Read!

Which of the following offends you the most?

I personally think it was lost in translation.

It’s been an interesting week for #KOT. So many things to get upset about! And no, you can’t pick more than one. I won’t get into Korean Air or the Irish Minister of Health – iCon handles that so much better. But in case you haven’t heard:

  • According to this blog post, the Irish Minister of Health says people who have high risk sex shouldn’t donate blood. His criteria for high risk sex includes homosexuality, prostitution, and sex in Africa.
  • Korean Airlines introduced a direct flight to Nairobi and invited their passengers to, “enjoy the grand African savannah, the safari tour, and the indigenous people full of primitive energy.” They have since apologized for their gaffe.
  • A parent got a lot of snide remarks for dropping his kids in school.┬á He lives in Lewa. The kids go to school in Nairobi. He used a helicopter.

But I digress. This post is about literacy and tarmac(king). I’ve always loved reading, and have worked as both a writer and an editor. I’ve heard millions hundreds more than one person claim that Kenyans don’t read. It’s been used as an excuse for not publishing a book, a response to a scathing review, a veto of certain projects, a reason for not getting a writing job, an explanation for low writing standards, and a justification for calling Kenya East Africa a literary desert, words famously uttered by Professor Taban Lo Liyong.

I’ve always wondered about that phrase. I admit that while I love to read, I spend more time watching TV than I used to. Especially in the last few months. What changed? Well, I finally got the signal for Viasat Crime, Crime & Investigation Network (CI), Discovery … and E! I insist it counts that I’m spending days at a time watching documentaries sensible TV, but, of course, not everyone will see it that way.

Whenever I tell people I love to read, they ask me one of two questions. They either ask me the last book I read, or they ask me to suggest a book they should read. People who ask the former question generally read things like Kite Runner, The Art of War, Dead Aid, and The Trials of Brother Jero. My reply is calculated to be both cheeky and honest – the last title I remember reading was Harry Potter. I also spend a lot of time reading blogs, online articles, texts, e-books, work documents, and tweets, though I suppose people could argue that spending all day online doesn’t count as reading.

But the main reason I disagree with the ‘Kenyans don’t read’ theory is the hundreds of book vendors that fill the streets these days. Novels are on sale everywhere from Toi Market to my neighbourhood shoemaker. They sell for as little as 50/= and they’re not all Harlequinns/ Mills & Boons. Kenyan salespeople are pretty street-smart. They wouldn’t be selling books if people weren’t buying them.

Of course there are those who buy books but don’t actually read them. I have tons of books – both online and offline – that I haven’t gotten round to reading … yet. Still, in the average bus or matatu, there’ll be at least two people staring at their books in traffic. They even turn the pages every once in a while. The rest will be giggling at the pictures and words on their smartphones. It looks a lot like reading.

I’ve met quite a few writers. Some are brilliant. Some are lousy. Most are scared. They don’t want to write because nobody will publish them, or listen to them, or read them. I know lots more writers who spend time online writing, and reading, and blogging, with nothing but stats and a few random comments to let them know anyone cares.

I’ve met lots of readers too, lots and lots of readers. People who spend hours on books and would love to be locked with a model in a library. Kenyans read and write plenty. We just need to get more visible and more serious about things. I know some people that are working on that, and I’m hoping something awesome will come out of the project.

On to my second rant of the day. I once heard a friend complain that job-hunting is Kenya’s favourite occupation. I was tarmacking at the time, so I found his comment immensely offensive. But he had an explanation. He had just spent 12 weeks trying to fill a position that paid 60K a month. All it required was proficiency in Photoshop. He was practically begging people to apply, but nobody was interested! He had previously tried to get designers to apply for a contest that had prize money in hundreds of thousands plus a guaranteed job spot. Still no takers. I told him he was simply looking in the wrong circles.

Another friend says he will never hire anyone over 35 because all Kenyans above that age have side hustles. They won’t focus or commit to their day job because their dream is to ‘do their own thing’ full-time. Lately, that age-mark is getting lower and lower as talented young Kenyans refuse to get into formal employment. They seem to prefer freelancing or iHubbing. I disagreed with that theory too, as I know a lot of people that are itching for salaries. At least, I thought I did.

I recently found myself scouting for someone to fill a writing/social media position. I asked several writers that I know. Hardly any of them applied. They had excuses ranging from ‘My English isn’t good enough,’ to ‘I’ll do it tomorrow.’ In another interview situation, colleagues asked me to apply but were unwilling to try it out themselves. I started to wonder whether my friend was right.

As we speak … or … um … read … Squad Digital is looking to fill 23 positions for everything ranging from Client Service and Social Media to Digital Designers. They’re holding walk-in interviews on Saturday 23rd June. That means you carry a CV, relevant documents, show up, present your case, and possibly land a pretty well-paying job. Usiseme hukuambiwa. In less absorbing matters, there are an awful lot of fruit vendors in town lately. There are almost as many fresh juice and fruit salad stands as there are M-PESA outlets. Does that mean Kenyans are suddenly eating healthy?

14 thoughts on “Kenyans Don’t Read!

  1. You are right, Kenyans do read & I’ve observed the street bookstores phenomenon with great interest & with a plan of writing about it but you’ve beat me to it :-). It’s a good thing.

    On the reading visibility front I’ve started a digital book club!forum/wamathai-book-club & the idea is to discuss books online & then have offline events from August.

    If anyone knows of other such *reading visibility
    * projects kindly inform me so that i can support & highlight them

  2. I also don’t buy the Kenyans don’t read theory because of the book vendors. They’re all over. And they have all sorts of books. My friends and I are picking classic titles and authors costing as little as 50/- on the streets. It can’t be a coincidence that they’re available. There’s a market for them.

  3. On Kenyans not reading………….that is an old story that doesn’t hold water. As for the jobs…………. I have had the same experience. Don’t know what is going on……!

  4. Kenyans read na haturingi! ­čÖé May be since we are not saying it out loud its like we, well, don’t.
    About being ‘chronic tarmakers’ i can’t say much, probably i’ll experience that part of life after college…

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  6. Kenyans do read just the percentage that read Novels or ‘books’ is small. I’m not much of a novel reader but read all kinds of informative stuff online and many times when the piece is long I skim to get the information that I want. The way in which we access information has changed and so is the way we tell our stories.

  7. I read. I am Kenyan. Kenyans read ­čÖé

    As for not applying for certain jobs, there are excuses and then reasons. For instance, if your company is known for having a high staff turnover, has poor employee retention or doesn’t guarantee job security, then word will go round. It’s much like the Saudi Arabian domestic jobs on offer. No matter the pay, some jobs are considered for the very brave or very desperate. Some people just can’t afford to take the risk.

  8. I love this blog! As a reader and a writer, the ‘Kenyans don’t read’ comments always get me hot and bothered, I appreciate your rant. It’s worth it. As for the Koreans, we should also have our own advertisement, indicating our going to view their people in their ‘indigenous’ habitat. . It’s sad really because I’m always watching south Korean shows and I love them so much.

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