A passionate performer, Wangari The Storyteller has shared stories broadly in different places around the country. She has also toured India, Iran, Germany, Sweden and Somaliland telling stories and conducting workshops.
She champions reading for pleasure among children and young people, and has authored three children’s books: The Colour Magician, The Forever Tree and Mti wa Milele.
Wangari infuses her stories with song, dance, chants and other performance delicacies to create an intimate interaction with her audiences.
What are the three most memorable books you read as a child and what made them so?
The Adventures of Thiga – it was the first storybook that my mother ever bought for me. I treasured it for so many years! Then, Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series and Barbara Kimenye’s Moses series. Being an introverted child, I lived wild and dangerously through the lives of these characters. I was always being punished for reading storybooks under my desk during class time.
How would you describe your perfect reading experience?
I love reading when I am alone, whether it is stretched on the sofa with my legs up the armrest, sitting under a tree or curled up in bed covered in a warm shuka.
Who are your three favourite authors?
Can I make them four? Okay, fine. Stieg Larsson. I absolutely loved his trilogy of The girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Very captivating, I don’t think I have rummaged ‘Inama Bookshops’ in town looking for the any other book as I did these titles.
Locally, Kinyanjui Kombani makes me tick in the way his novels capture places so realistically. It gives you the feeling that if you ever went to Molo or Ng’ando Estate, you would be visiting familiar ground. I also admire how Muthoni Garland manages to write for both children and adults so creatively.
Most recently, India’s Ramendra Kumar, who has a collection of stories from his community dubbed Tales from Orissa. This caught my eye since I hope to do the same with Kenyan traditional tales someday.
How do you pick out your reads?
I read the synopsis. If it is sizzling, then I put it on my to-read-list. If the synopsis is not conclusive, I read the first paragraph or so. That helps me make up my mind quite fast. Also, how the book is laid out and its font – whether it is inviting to the eye or not – counts. I don’t really follow reading trends or hype.
You are one of the most celebrated storytellers of our time. Tell us, what does it take to read a story, internalise it and perform it spectacularly?
I always try to tell stories that I love, whether they are traditional stories or contemporary written works. I think this is important. I also request for artistic license to tweak some stuff on the storyline especially if it is by authors that I know. This makes it more personalised.
In terms of performance and how a piece comes out, there are a number of things that come into play. I always say that for a great performance experience, you need three ingredients – a good story, a good storyteller and a good audience that is willing to engage. If either of the three is missing, then the performance is quite an uphill task.
How many books did you read in 2018? Any that particularly stood out for you?
Not sure but a lot, given that my work revolves largely around reading. I read more children’s stories than adult-oriented works. Jennifer Makumbi’s Kintu though definitely made the year for me. The plot and the way the story weaves itself through generations is so awesome that it is hard to believe that it was her first book. I am planning to re-read it soon.
If you were to recommend a reading list of three books to a 10-year-old, which ones would they be ?
My two books, The Forever Tree and The Colour Magician would definitely be on the list because they are written for this particular age group. Next would be Hillary Namunyu’s Teddy Mapesa and the Missing Cash – which by the way I recommend a lot, especially to boys, who parents say are harder to cultivate the love of reading compared to girls. I would also add Hekaya za Abunuwasi, which is a collection of hilarious stories.
As an active reading advocate and a writer of children’s books, do you think it is necessary for adults to read children books?
Absolutely! Have you read one lately? The imagination and creativity employed in some of those books is way up there. Sometimes I find myself literally laughing out loud as I read.
It is also important for parents to read the books they buy for their children first before they hand them over. This not only keeps them in the loop about what their kids are exposed to, it also makes for good conversation starters.
Don’t forget that children ascribe to ‘monkey see, monkey do’ philosophy. If they don’t see you reading, chances are they also won’t read unless they are forced by circumstances.
If you had a chance to motivate someone to be an avid reader, what would be your pitch?
Read what you think you would enjoy. Don’t feel pressured or fear being judged if what you are reading does not ascribe to other peoples’ tastes. Fancy comics or picture books? Thumb the pages away.
Read widely and don’t restrict yourself to a particular genre. The more variety you expose yourself to, the better you will know what makes you tick. Then, don’t force yourself to finish a book you don’t like. Put it aside and pick another.
Lastly, read to have fun and don’t kill yourself analysing for themes, morals and such. I believe we learn best when we are having fun. Otherwise, it will start looking like a test.
If you had the opportunity to meet three authors, dead or alive, who would they be?
Stieg Larsson, the Swedish author for sure. Uganda’s Jennifer Makumbi and South Africa’s Gcina Mhlope, who not only has a sizeable repertoire of writing to her name, but is also notable for her zeal to promote oral heritage and literacy. This has even earned her the moniker ‘Mother of Books’. How cool is that!
What are your reading goals for 2019?
I don’t have specific goals of reading x number of books for the year. All I know is that I want to read more away from the usual reading I do for work. And in the process, hopefully discover some exciting authors I have not encountered before, both for children and adults.