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Kenya's rising culture club

After social upheaval, clubs and small publishers have sprung up in the East African nation as new outlets for literary expression.

By Eamon Kircher-AllenContributor / January 18, 2010

Kenyans gather at a Nairobi bookstore to read a book on the nation's politics. Clubs and small publisher's have sprung up in the East African nation as new outlets for literary expression.

Antony Njuguna / Reuters

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Nairobi, Kenya

It might be just another club night in party-hearty Nairobi. In a little, second-floor downtown bar bathed in red lights and decorated with funky paintings, crunk music thumps from a high-quality sound system. Couples at tables sip drinks.

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But then, after a few measures, the music stops, and a poet takes the stage. Wearing dreadlocks and an orange scarf tied around his head, Kennet B begins a spoken-word tirade against environmental degradation and corruption.

“Something revolutionary is going to happen tonight,” he announces. The crowd shouts its approval.

It’s the first Tuesday of the month, which means that the Kwani? Trust (the question mark is part of its name), a Kenyan literary collective and nonprofit publishing house, has sponsored open mic night at Clubb Sound. The event brings together Nairobi’s intelligentsia and literary dabblers.

This is ground zero for a revival of East African literature in which Kwani? is playing a leading role. Since 2003, Kwani? has published short-story collections, photography, and political cartoons. The group has also sold 15,000 copies of its yearly journal – not a huge figure by American standards, but remarkable for a market in Africa, which is not known for its book buyers. “For this space, that’s incredible,” said Billy Kahora, the editor of Kwani? “I mean, a good monthly magazine sells 5,000 copies.”

Another publishing house called Storymoja (“one story”), which sponsors similar events, has sprung up, and the Kenyan literary scene is creating buzz.

Kenyans have long been writing and, of course, telling stories. What’s new is the relative strength of the interest in domestic books.

“They’re bestsellers,” says book salesman Protus Ikutwa of the Kwani? books that occupy a few shelves at Prestige bookstore in downtown Nairobi, next to volumes about Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Mr. Ikutwa says the store was selling five copies a day.

Still, in a country where the gross domestic product per capita is $1,600 – about 1/30th of the United States – many Kenyans don’t have the disposable income to spend on the $10 journals. So Kwani? has begun selling individual short stories in pocket-sized booklets, not only in bookstores but also in supermarkets, for about $2.50. The goal is to harness the lower-spending end of the market, as well as first-time readers.

It’s a strategy that seems to be working. “Today, Kenyans have begun to read,” Ikutwa says. “They want to know about their country.”

Ironically, the explosion of creativity seems to be riding on the same forces that have thrown the country into the worst instability in decades, following disputed elections at the end of 2007. Kenyan society is in some kind of convulsion, and people have things to say about it.

On the one hand, there are thousands of internally displaced persons, along with widespread mistrust among Kenyans and growing insecurity – kidnappings and armed robberies are commonplace. On the cultural scene, however, the crisis has broken open a vibrant creative space – and revealed a thirst for expression, as Kenyans grapple with their country’s future.

“There’s positive chaos and negative chaos,” says Mr. Kahora in his Nairobi office. The 30-something editor smiles a little ruefully.

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