Libraries in Nairobi, Kenya, are getting a makeover thanks to two women who are hoping to turn the page on the past – creating a new future both for the books inside the libraries and the communities around them.
Book Bunk, founded in 2017 by publisher Angela Wachuka and author Wanjiru Koinange, is a non-profit organization working to restore libraries across the city by updating everything from the physical infrastructure to the book collections. The team has also helped transform the libraries into spaces for events that encourage thought and celebrate writing, including hosting the Nairobi Literature Festival.
“We’ve really asked a lot of questions about what libraries are, what they can be, and what’s stopping them from getting to the point where they can fully serve communities,” said Koinange.
The formerly dilapidated buildings are haunted by the ghosts of a not-so-distant past. Kenya, which had been under British rule since 1895, was named an official colony in 1920 and remained that way for more than 40 years.
McMillan Memorial Library is the city’s oldest library, and Book Bunk’s latest project. Built in 1931, only White European colonizers were allowed to enter the space for the next three decades,
Even the name of the library recalls its history. It was commissioned by Lady Lucie McMillan and dedicated as a memorial to her husband, British American settler Sir William Northrup McMillan. Past the lions guarding the front entrance (placed there in reference to McMillan’s fascination with lions), the books within the library also serve as striking reminders of the times.
“When you look at the collection, it reflects a certain kind of ideology – a very problematic one,” said Wachuka.
Updating a colonial collection
In 2018, Book Bunk established a partnership with Nairobi’s local government that allows the team to lead restoration efforts in the city’s libraries. Book Bunk, which relies on donors and partnerships to fund its projects, has a dedicated staff of paid and volunteer workers.
Wachuka and Koinange, along with 30 interns, worked over a period of nine months at the McMillan Memorial Library to catalogue 137,705 books – mainly acquired from British colonizers. They are now combing through the material to decide which ones will stay.
“The texts in here don’t reflect who we are but are an important part of understanding how we have been viewed throughout history,” said Wachuka.
The McMillan Library is Book Bunk’s third library restoration project. The team has already restored Eastlands Library in eastern Nairobi and the more central Kaloleni Library. They are now working to digitize books and archival content like periodicals that will make access to history a click away.
While sorting through the shelves, they noticed a sizable gap at all three libraries: the lack of an Africanist collection.
“I’m 100% sure that if we had books on the shelves that reflected people’s needs, then we’d have them flying off the shelves,” said Koinange.
The organization plans to add books by and about Africans, the diaspora, and the Black experience. The team also publishes books, including the East African version of Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o’s children’s book “Sulwe,” available in English, Swahili, and Luo (a language spoken mainly by the Luo people, the fourth-largest ethnic group in Kenya).
A welcoming space to gather
The surrounding communities use the libraries as workspaces, with about 300 people across the locations accessing them every day, according to Koinange. Before Book Bunk restored them, Kaloleni and Eastlands had no running water or workable bathrooms, and McMillan had a barely functioning electrical system, forcing the library to close when the sun set.
Even before revamping the libraries, Book Bunk spent months surveying local communities to find out what services would be most useful. People requested Wi-Fi, updated bathrooms, extended opening hours, community spaces and fun activities.
Koinange and Wachuka listened. Kaloleni now has a dedicated children’s library and at Eastlands, a funky space filled with art and complete with a stage for performances – including a recent set featuring Kenyan singer and songwriter Sanaipei Tande, recorded as part of the Nairobi Literature Festival.
Book Bunk is currently working to create outdoor spaces at the libraries and updating infrastructure, from installing Wi-Fi to clearing asbestos in the walls. And while there is still the lingering feeling that they are restoring a space that was never intended for them, Koinange believes it is important to stand up to history and leave something better for posterity.
“I think there’s an erasure that we’re very quick to do as Kenyans when things are painful. That is not useful, because if you erase it, then you kind of forget it, and it happens over and over again,” she said. “(Instead), you stare it in the face and be like, ‘We’re going to make you beautiful again.’ You’re going to find a way to restore not just the building, but what the building means for Kenyans, (and) that is a lot more lasting.”
Briana Duggan contributed to this story.