Along Kakamega-Mumias road, at Ejinja corner is Wanda resort where Professor Kabaji dedicates his time to telling children stories. A section of the resort has a library and playground donated to children.
Prof. Egara Kabaji is one of the most prolific writers of children’s literature in Kenya with over 30 fictional publications. A professor of literary communication, he is the president of the Creative Writers Association of Kenya and Vice President of Pan African Writers Association (PAWA).
Professor Kabaji, who has been running Professor Francis Imbuga Memorial Library since 2016 at his resort, spoke to Nation.co.ke.
When are storytelling sessions held?
Storytelling sessions are held on Saturdays. There are people who come to monitor them and tell them stories.
What strategy do you use to ensure that children like the reading and storytelling sessions?
When they come, they read books first before they use the PlayStation and computers. The storytelling session then follows. The last activity is playing at the swings.
Do you actively participate in the storytelling sessions?
It is one of the most exciting parts when the kids come. I remember one who came recently and insisted that I read an entire story. What was beautiful about it is that it was my own story.
What do you enjoy most when holding the reading and storytelling sessions?
The company of children. If you write for children, you must think like them. And for you to think like them, you must interact with them. This way, you get to understand how they think, you get to know their sensitivities, and how they communicate.
Can we talk about how you get to write the stories?
A good writer for children must have a good memory of his or her childhood. Many of the stories I write are really about my childhood and the people I interacted with. I also write based on my experiences through interaction with my own (as well as other) children.
Allow me to make this addition. Anyone who thinks that writing for children is merely the first step towards big things is greatly mistaken.
So, what was the inspiration behind the creation of the library?
I enjoy the company of kids and I write for children. It is where the inspiration came from. I also needed to honour Professor Francis Imbuga, who discovered me and taught me how to write. But most importantly, I was disturbed in the 90’s when I saw parents want to have drinks and have children close to them.
I wanted to set up a dignified establishment where kids would stay and learn while their parents enjoy themselves.
And, is the library entirely for children?
There is a small section for adults, which supports my book club, Kakamega Book Club, where currently, 22 lovers of books meet and discuss books once a month.
How did you enrich the library with books, and how do you maintain a supply of books to the library?
I asked my publisher, of whom I am profoundly grateful, the East African Educational Publishers to instead of paying me my royalties, give me books for children. We also agreed that they brand the library because they were Francis Imbuga’s publisher too.
I buy many books and see no reason why they should stay on a shelf in my study.
Lastly, I also received a consignment of Christianity oriented books from Kathy Walker, a missionary who works with Free Presbyterian Church of Northern Ireland (FPCU).
What is the link between storytelling and the search for knowledge?
Literature expands the human mind by opening up imaginative faculties. No experience rivals the experiences a child goes through by interacting with stories and storybooks. Children take drugs because they are trying to find meaning in life.
The crisis lay in the lack of exposure to stories that nourish children and make them find meaning in life. The country has failed to facilitate children to find meaning in life.
How can we inspire inquisitiveness in our children?
The whole process of getting children to appreciate literature begins with educating the parents. Parents have abandoned children to other socializing engines. We need to give parents a new orientation. Find stories and read to the kid.
Once you read it and the kid can see it is a good story, the kid gets hooked to books. The problem is with the parents who believe that a television, an Xbox, PlayStation and giving money is all.
Do you believe that when we tell children stories, they will have a sense of freedom in life?
If we expose children to ideological stories, and ideology can be gleaned from the instruments that govern us such as the constitution and vision 2030.
Where are stories on peacebuilding and ethnic harmony? How do we make them appreciate the constitution? Think of enticing the young to appreciate farming.
They think that their parents are impoverished because of farming. The country will get the children to appreciate the constitution by telling stories that are imbued with the spirit of the constitution.
You once accused the academia of pathetic insolvency in terms of imperatives of scholarly debate, and you are quoted saying that Kenya sits at the periphery of knowledge table and that the academy has lost direction. Prof., what is it that you recommend the next generation of intellectuals do better to rebuild the academy?
Research and dissemination for knowledge is our business. Our contribution to research and dissemination of knowledge is abysmal in the whole world. As a country, we have not yet allocated the resource quota which we agreed on as Africa.
Much of our findings are placed on shelves. We must find a way of ensuring we push the agenda. The debates we put on media help push this agenda. We should direct research in culture and indigenous knowledge. We must think of knowledge as multidisciplinary.
I came across an article in which you describe yourself as a farmer. Where did you get this love for growing your food and how does this relate to your role as a public intellectual?
I love the wild and serenity that gives me peace that I need to create. I also need to engage in things that are different from the kind of pressure I find myself in while at the office. Most importantly, we have a duty as intellectuals to find the predicaments.
We talk about people’s predicament in society as social scientists but we do not know them. You can carry out the research but you can also experience it.
What is your concept of freedom for a country like Kenya in the 21st Century?
It is freedom from lack of knowledge and lack of ideology, courtesy of wilful ignorance and unacceptable orientation.
If we do not have to suffer from lack of knowledge and a proper orientation, we will be moving in the right direction.
What have been some of the bravest ideas or statements you have expressed in the public?
My hatred for plunder of public resources; people without democratic credentials and those who perceive others as subjects.
Leadership, to me, is a question of being first among equals, listening to people, reaching a consensus and moving forward.
Any last words?
For one to find meaning in life, he or she must read and be told stories from an early age. It is what we do at Francis Imbuga Memorial Library at Wanda Gardens.