Access to Literature in Kenya

Literature is a part of economic, political, and social growth on an individual and global scale; it is for this reason that literature should be free and open access. By making literature inaccessible for certain groups of people, they have an imperative right, the right to knowledge, withheld. Access to literature should be a fundamental right both in academia as well as in general everyday settings. The question that arises is how does Africa, specifically Kenya, fit into the conversation of access to literature?

Literature transcends written forms of communication and information. Kenya has an oral storytelling tradition that encompasses the heritage of the community. Before colonisation, the community elder was tasked with storytelling, relaying the history of the tribe, their land, and their customs. Elders had an apprentice take over the storytelling after the elder passed, so this tradition could be passed down to future generations. When the colonisers came, so did the death of this age-old method of passing literature down from generation to generation.1 Transmission of traditional and cultural knowledge moved from speech to written text enforced by the growth of Christianity and the rise of missionary schools. Foreign researchers documented the stories in written texts, often fragmented and out of context, which were then stolen and locked away in institutions like the British museum – forever lost to the tribes who had their entire history taken from them.2

The British Museum

Where does that leave us? When we discuss literature in this article, I’m referring to historical accounts and reports from the colonisation era, including African poets, activist manifestos, and fiction. It is incorrect to say that literature is inaccessible in every part of Africa but when we compare our institutions to global, Western institutions like Oxford or Harvard our libraries falter. They have an array of national and international literature accessible to students studying at the institution, a privilege that students studying on the continent do not have. Even in those institutions, African voices are missing from Western depictions of African stories/archives. 

Although these stories were seemingly lost, the government did archive certain information, but we must take this information with a pinch of salt; recorded archives became a reflection of the interests of people in power at the point in time, affecting our social value systems. Accessing literature relating to African history is no simple feat, due to the coloniser state of tyrannical governance that still persists in our educational institutions. There is a need to interrogate information considered imperative and information that is invalid to the African narrative.

The Mau Mau in Kenya were viewed as terrorists instead of freedom fighters for the better part of the 20th century. Dedan Kimathi, an imprisoned freedom fighter, only got his letters published after his death. During colonisation, racism was systemic to the point that schools in Kenya were racially segregated (yes, it happened here too) This led to white children and black children receiving completely different standards of education, with black kids struggling for the bare minimum while white kids thrived.3 This has persisted even in the post-colonial state. 

Dedan Kimathi

In East Africa, Open Access/Open-Source Literature is not accessible beyond research and academic scope. Physical libraries don’t archive older journal articles, dissertations, and other materials. However, websites like Academia.edu have helped counter this issue by archiving these documents on its site.4 It’s  important to note that a good percentage of Africans do not have access to the internet; making it difficult for the majority of people to access these resources. There are definite class structures that influence access to literature and archives, as most of the population do not have the resources. 

It’s no secret that there’s a need to reclaim the power so we can choose how African narratives are told. In Africa, organisations like Africa Access and Nabu.org attempt to make African literature more accessible to children and underprivileged Africans. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln is also trying to increase accessibility for different types of literature and points of view. Kwame Dawes, an English professor, pitched the program, recognising the need to uplift African historical narratives. The project is also providing grants to African artists to centralise African voices in the international art scene.

In 2020, ‘The Africa podfest’5 hosted a diverse group of activists, writers, and multidisciplinary artists. A conversation that stood out from the podcast was how new technology has changed and rectified oral storytelling. Sound systems of knowledge have made it accessible and affordable for future and current generations to access heritage archives and continue in the footsteps of oral storytelling culture. 

Footnotes
  1. Finnegan, Ruth H. Oral Literature in Africa. Cambridge, United Kingdom, Open Book Publishers, 2016.
  2. Marian Nur Goni, et al. Invisible Inventories : Zur Kritik Kenianischer Sammlungen in Westlichen Museen. Bayreuth: Johannesburg Iwalewabooks Nairobi Kwani Trust, 2021.
  3. Alwy, Alwiya, and Susanne Schech. “Ethnic Inequalities in Education in Kenya.” International Education Journal, vol. 5, no. 2, 2004, files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ903854.pdf.
  4. Chirwa, Mussa, and Ester Mnzav. Contribution of East Africa Region to Open Access Literature: The Case of OpenDOAR.
  5. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hkms9L-QNMA