An All-African Book Fair: Kenyan Bookshop Soma Nami Delights With a Pan-African Book Exhibition

Cover Photo Credit : Sarah Waiswa

The non-ephemeral belief among my countrymen is that most Kenyans don’t read. This is a thought engraved due to the perception that books are a luxury and reading them, is an elite’s hobby. A falsehood conceptualized by the capitalistic perception that while living in the third world, one must be more concerned with survival rather than matters of delight.

It is to debunk this narrative that Nairobi-based bookshop Soma Nami hosted a Pan-African book fair whose aim was to reveal the cached reading culture of Kenyans, while at the same time showcasing the array of talent in the African Literary cannon. And it is true to say the Kenyans repaid this courtesy from the Soma Nami founders, Muthoni Muiruri and Wendy Njoroge, by turning up in huge numbers to the MacMillan Memorial Library event.

From 1st August to 5th, on offer were an array of books; which ranged from the Cameroonian classic, Ros Schwartz’s translation of Max Lobe’s A Long Way from Doula, to the most sort after East African short story collection currently; Troy Onyango’s For What Are Butterflies Without Their Wings, and also the recently acclaimed Ayobami Adebayo’s A spell of good things. In total, books from Fifty-two African countries were on display for both purchase and admiration from the bookaholics who turned up.

Albeit African Literature was not the only thing on offer, although the prominent one. The African diaspora literary scenery was also represented, with the prime example being the presence of copies of Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Diaspora, the hugely praised offering by Sarah Ladipo Manyika, alongside some Western classics as well. As Muthoni and Wendy implied during the opening ceremony and also the closing four days later, the purpose of having this wide range of books was to make sure that the literati tastes of all readers who turned up were catered for. It was also to give the unsure newer readers some comprehensiveness to aid them in determining their preferred tastes.

Though books were not the only thing to get delight from during the book fair. Throughout the five days that the event was ongoing, at the same venue Soma Nami had organised conversations with diverse panellists who held skull sessions on different aspects of literary arts. 

On the first day of the opening ceremony the founders, Muthoni and Wendy, kicked off the conversation sessions with a discussion between themselves revealing how the book fair was conceptualised. On the second day the conversation session was on documentation of culture and reclaiming the African Narrative with the renowned Tabu Osusa. The third day saw Sakina Tatiah explore poetry and mental health with references to her poetry book My Little Yellow Book, while the fourth day was a tale of double delight as at first author Joan Thotiah explored the Kenyan Literary hustle and the struggle of finding one’s writing voice, before later on a book launch by Linda Musita proved to be an insightful exploration of idiosyncrasies and what leads to the simmering of the idea to write a book. The final day saw a Ciku Kimeria and Otieno Opondo roundtable conversation.

For any literary creative who endeavoured to be present in the sessions, the knowledge dispersed to the audience proved to be profound, and something that made the book fair a rather memorable experience. Apart from delighting the avid readers, it was also a kind of unconventional workshop for aspiring writers as well. From Linda Musita who at one point talked about the intricacies of writing about sex, to Otieno Opondo who explored the core of self-publishing, and even Sakina Tatiah who talked about the advantages of networking as a writer, this proved to be a happening for any writer and even reader present was grateful for.

The Book Fair also had a kind of historical relevance to it. Hosting it in Nairobi’s oldest Library, the Macmillan Memorial Library, which is a space tainted with colonial legacy was an attempt at decolonising this avenue which in past eras was associated with restrictions for Africans and only catered for foreigners at best. Having a Pan-African book exhibition was a strive to remove the feeling of colonial nostalgia that had long lingered around the premises. 

Trevas Matathia, a representative of Book Bunk the organisation that has tasked itself with the restoration of the historical space, was present at the venue and constantly gave personalised tours of the space to the many tourists and revellers who turned to the book fair. In his own words, ‘While the prelude of thoughts about Macmillan Memorial Library is usually the rather colossal Kenyan colonial legacy, Book Bunk aims to eventually restore this space not only in appearance but also in perception. Having this Soma Nami African book fair held there was a positive step towards that goal. ‘

At the closing ceremony, immense praise was bestowed on what the book fair had managed to achieve. Wendy and Muthoni alongside established journalist Cynthia Mwangi moderated a session that proved to be a testimonial ceremony of the courtesy Soma Nami had shown Kenyan readers for five straight days. They had given them a place to congregate, buy books from across the continent and create a communiqué between themselves. The five days had achieved something each one was wowed with and never expected. Kenyans had turned up, debunked the non-readers’ narrative and also showed potential writers that an audience awaited their potential works. As one reader told everyone towards the end “The book fair is a dream come true for Kenyan readers and we can only hope it becomes a constant occurrence”.

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