When is the last time you read a book? Did you buy the book, or was it a borrowed text?
That young Kenyans do not read books is not a new topic. Those who read do so for purely academic reasons, it has been said.
But are young people really reading for recreational and for intellectual purposes? If not, why are they disinclined to read? Can this situation be remedied? Or could lack of readership among young people be a blanket condemnation?
Some are faithful readers though, but what literature material do they consume? In what formats do they consume this? We spoke with five young lovers of literary works who put the state of readership among the Kenya’s youth into perspective.
VINCY MASAKA, 23
Masaka is studying gender and development at Kenyatta University. She reads poetry, documentaries, fiction and investigative material with religious consistency.
While she admits that time has become elusive due to her work engagements, Masaka says she dives into a book whenever she gets the chance. Her current read is John Grisham’s The Street Lawyer.
“Reading is a habit my mum helped to develop in me. She used to buy for me story books and novels as gifts when I was a small child. I mostly read e-books, but occasionally physical copies too, which I find easier to manage. I am also able to pass them down to my younger sister,” she says.
Masaka openly agrees that reading has become “almost an outdated hobby” among most people, particularly the youth, who find reading boring and less thrilling.
Her peers, she says, prefer to hang out with their friends and playing video games to reading books.
“Social media has disrupted everything. Young people spend most of their time online catching up on memes, breaking news and gossip, all which are of less intellectual value compared to reading,” she observes.
In her view, there is a dearth of local content in the genres of investigative documentaries, which is what excites most readers.
If she had the power to rebrand the local literary scene, she would change the marketing strategy, plot structure and the quality of work delivered by some local authors.
“Most works lack originality. The language in some of the works is not appealing enough. There is urgency to improve some of the works in the market,” she opines.
MUCHIRA GACHENGE, 21
“I don’t think our society treats reading as a primary need, which is a sad reality,” says Gachenge, a third year student of English Literature at Moi University.
Gachenge is a former Features Editor for the university’s press club, The 3rd Eye. He loves to read both fiction and nonfiction books.
“My reading list includes two books every month. These are usually the newest releases. Once in a while, I read classics, which I find irresistible and deep,” he says, adding that his love for literature was self-developed, having grown up in rural Kirinyaga County.
Coincidentally, Gachenge’s reads this month are anthologies of short stories, Tom Mwiraria’s Land of Bones launched last week and Niq Mhlongo’s Soweto, Under the Apricot Tree launched last month in Nairobi.
“I love reading original books, especially if signed by the author. There is a feeling of pride and motivation that comes with autographs. I find reading hardcopy easier and faster as opposed to other formats such as pdfs and Epubs,” he says.
Gachenge reads primarily for pleasure as opposed to reading for academic purposes. This, he says, allows him the freedom to choose books that will satisfy his curiosity before the actual reading.
“No one wants to spend money on boring books,” he observes.
His favourite books include Ngúgí wa Thiong’o’s Dreams in a Time of war: A Childhood Memoir, Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Trevor Noah’s Born A Crime.
“Writers are readers. As a budding writer of fiction, the importance of reading cannot be overstated owing to the lessons on effect styles of presentation gathered from published and established writers,” he notes.
Gachenge does not agree with the notion that film is more effective than books in telling stories, arguing that books have the enigmatic ability to transport one through all the scenes in the plot while allowing intimate interactions with the characters, their emotions, attitudes and thoughts, a privilege that lacks in movies.
He says: “Reading improves an individual’s concentration skills, vocabulary, writing and speaking skills as well. Movie producers do not have the luxury of time to emphasise on every bit within the story.”
Gachenge, however, agrees that in Kenya, books are more expensive than film as a result of taxation.
“While movies are cheaper, we cannot use this as the basis of comparison and choice on what to consume,” he says. In his view, the value that each form of art contributes to the society should be embraced and avenues for its production and consumption promoted.
He goes on: “Reading has bettered me on many fronts, including expanding my worldview and imparting key virtues of tolerance, patience and the art to seek creative ways in solving life’s problems. My language is now more polished. In reading, I’ve found a better way to spend my time.”
Gachange is a member of a writers and readers club called Writers’ Cooperative of Moi University, which seeks to nurture budding writers.
“Members of the club who include the alumni, provide a great literary network that helps one to learn of new books, literary activities and also easy access to professional editing services,” he says.
BENSON MURUKU, 27
“Reading takes most of the hours I should be sleeping. I also red at work when I am bored and with little to do,” says Muruku, a professional midwife, who describes himself as a functional reader.
“I mostly read medical books or anything related to my field of work including medical journals, brochures and material medical research. I have a mini medical surgical book that I always walk with in my pocket during working hours for reference purposes,” he says.
Muruku’s current read is on poliomyelitis (polio), and the activities of the World Health Organisation (WHO) aimed at eradicating the disease in the country. His goal is to expand his understanding of human reproductive health, and related illnesses such as urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted infections, prostate cancer, cervical cancer and fibroids.
He goes on, “The medical field is as technical as it is diverse. I, therefore, read to expand my scope of knowledge on the different aspects of medicine beyond my own specialisation. I always seek to retain most of the information because I have to apply it in one way or the other in my career.”
“Generally, I read for intellectual purposes and slightly for recreation,” he adds. His biggest distractions to reading, like most young people, are TV, radio, and smartphone.
TOM MWIRARIA, 31
“There should be more awards, prizes and journals to encourage the art of creative writing and the reading culture among Kenyans,” Tom Mwiraria says on the state of literature in the country.
Mwiraria is a Bachelor of business management graduate from Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology. He writes for Daily Nation Lifestyle and is also a contributing author to UN Environment and sometimes a ghost writer.
He describes himself as an adaptable reader who consumes everything readable.
“I carry books everywhere I go to and read them over and over again. I am also a literary prospector. I read little known authors and bloggers and other literary magic with the inherent motivation of tapping into their thoughts so that I can improve my own writing,” he says.
As such, Mwiraria is an enthusiast of Charles Buckowski, Chinua Achebe, C. Lewis, Katana Mkangi, Virginia Wolf and Dante Alighieri and other works of antiquity transcending genre.
“I read books that provoke me to think such as transcendence philosophy and prominent works such as those by Ralph Waldo Emerson. I like to travel to worlds untold through speculative fiction and get a peek into the future,” he says, lamenting that speculative fiction is not appreciated as much as it should on the continent.
Mwiraria has a bone to pick with African writers, who he says have turned into archaeologists and historical researchers.
“To capture the interest of the youthful audience, writers should be more responsive to modern day challenges and be anticipatory of the future world. They should focus more on future crimes and speculative cosmic discoveries, themes which the young easily relate with,” he observes.
“Why is it that African writers are not writing about utopias, dystopias, galactic empires, mind editing, mind uploading, virtual worlds, cybernetics secrets and vaults?” he wonders.
While agreeing that young people actually read, he notes that most of the younger generation like freebies, and for them, buying a book is an “excruciatingly painful” affair.
“Many young people are purveyors of pdf books on their smartphones, mindless of copyright issues. It is upon writers to adapt to dynamic reading trends and write more appealingly to hook the millennial demographic,” he observes.
Mwiraria is least concerned about poor readership among the youth, arguing that by reading other people’s works, he does not except his to be read in return.
“Some of my stories are painful pimples that need to be squeezed. Others are mere protests while some are septic wounds that only writing can heal. While many people are merely onlookers to my work, I am grateful to those who identify with my writing,” he says.
In his opinion, readership among the youth in Kenya would be greatly improved if reading platforms such as mobile book apps were increased and book club start-ups and other such support initiatives encouraged.
“The Kenya National Library Service (KNLS) could start a library agency (proxy) initiative and christen it something such as ‘Library mtaani’ and also enhance mobile libraries,” he says.
According to him, instead of littering neighbourhoods with pubs and liquor dens, libraries should be prioritised.
EUNNIAH MBABAZI, 23
ELECTRICAL AND ELECTRONICS ENGINEER
“Reading takes you from Nairobi to Lagos, to Pretoria, New York City and Iceland. It takes you behind prison walls, to hospital corridors, morgues, to the depths of pits and to the sun and sand beaches,” Mbabazi says of the mystery of deep reading.
Mbabazi is a member of the Writers Guild Kenya and a writer of African stories at Kasoma Africa. Reading, she says, is part of her DNA: she reads everything, including newspaper cut-outs and children stories.
“I read on a daily basis. Sometimes I read throughout the day. On my slowest days, I set a target of at least 10 pages of a book which I carry to wherever I go,” Mbabazi says. Mbabazi enjoys reading in solitude; in the house, along a deserted beach, in an abandoned house, away from human distractions. Her best reading time is the wee hours of the night.
“There is something magical about the night chill, the eerie silence and cricket sounds. These make reading irresistible and a profound affair,” she notes. She adds: “I am the type of reader who writes while reading. I highlight lines that speak to my heart and soul, lines that stand out because of the weight of their words and the emotions they spark.”
Her favourite reads? Intricately-woven fiction stories, any day, any time.
“Fiction awakens the imaginative power underneath the otherwise dormant writer that I am. It pokes and jogs my writer’s mind,” she says.
Investigative crime novels stimulate her big time. In another life, Mbabazi would be an investigator of dark crime mysteries such as cold-blood murders.
Motivational books though do not excite her, and many such texts lie untouched in her bookcase at home.
Is book reading a solitary affair? To some extent, yes. But for a worthy cause.
“When you immerse yourself into the book pages, you become engrossed in the lives of the characters, get disappointed by some of their decisions, laugh at their sarcasm and cry at their miseries. You only emerge from the fantasy when you finish reading the book,” she says.
According to her, reading is more fun when done in groups.
She says, “I belong to a book club where members read a common book and meet for discussions, to laugh at the best characters and bash the villains, to discuss literary styles and to marvel at the glamour of the suspense employed by the writer. There could never be a more refreshing activity.”
According to her, Kenyans should make it a practice to read more problem-solving books, famously known as “how to” books.
“Such books are resourceful and offer a step-by-step guide on how to handle various tasks such as cooking, washing or weaving. They are also fun to read,” she says. On promotion of readership in Kenya, Mbabazi says:
“Introducing books to kids at a tender age lays a better foundation towards development of a reading culture. Book clubs and leisure reading should also be promoted. Broadcast media should come up with such concepts as the “book of the month” to encourage the youth to read books.”
Books are a reflection of the society and play the critical role of promoting peaceful coexistence among people, she says.
“We have a duty, therefore, to ensure that consumption of literature is well articulated and promoted within our communities,” she concludes.
Reading time severed by numerous distractions
Many studies on consumption of literature show that reading has gradually lost its privileged status
While the trend cuts across the age divide, the worst affected demographic are young people aged between 15 to 35 years.
A study done by GeoPoll in 2015 on newspaper and magazine readership in Kenya revealed that the youth account for roughly 20 per cent of the audience.
But why are young people not reading as much as they used to some years back?
Researchers says that the average youth faces many distractions today, including other forms of media such as TV, mobile phones and computers, all which lead to an information overload.
Technology has greatly disrupted the balance of book readership, with new formats such as PDF, ePUBs, blogs and websites offering more convenience than traditional books.
Did you know that the attention span of human being is lower than that of goldfish? A Microsoft Corp. study in 2015 showed that the attention span of a common person is eight seconds, down from 12 seconds twenty years ago. This, obviously, makes reading a tough task.
Books take a great deal of time and concentration to read than consuming the same content in, say, a movie.
Then there is social media. Time spent on social media by young people is increasing by the day.
Teens, for instance, spend up to nine hours on social platforms every day, using their mobile phones. This has, consequently, severed reading time.