My Brief Love Affair with Nairobi Street Book Stalls – Part I

Written by Kenne Mwikya

As must be with all relationships of this kind, my love affair with bookstalls arose out of the rupture of obliviousness. It was also partly sustained by a different kind of obliviousness, though I will speak about this later. Soon after finishing high school and with time on my hands, I had taken to making trips to the city centre to meet with friends. Conviviality, with people who I had chosen for myself — not family or classmates I had been bundled up with in high school — had quickly become a point of respite from my isolating apprehension about my queerness.

I accompanied my friend Steve to look for old copies of Vogue, Elle or W magazines which fuelled his ravenous interest in fashion. I took the opportunity to buy myself past copies of the New Yorker and Harper’s for about 70 -100 shillings each. I’d read both within the week just in time for me and my friend’s next outing about town where we’d exchange the magazines, talk about what we’d read and make rounds looking for new material.

The first book I remember buying was a copy of Randy Shilts’ Conduct Unbecoming about gays and lesbians in the United States military. I bought it at a bookstall along Hakati Lane next to the bus station. It cost me 500 shillings, quite expensive, but it had caught my attention in an unprecedented way as Steve and I hurried towards the city centre during one of our rounds.

I did not have enough money at the time and made a deposit in order to collect the book when I’d be in town next. I remember being marvelled by how new and crisp it was: no stains, no yellowing of the pages. It was hardcover with the words “gay” and “lesbian” emblazoned defiantly in silver on the cover. I also remember this event as one which marked my own sense of courage by making a claim to a stranger (the book seller) that I had an interest in homosexuality.

The book itself wasn’t good; nothing about the global devastation brought about by the US military or the links to be made about a militaristic masculine culture and its effect upon women and queers. If anything, Conduct Unbecoming has been instrumental only in giving me a feel of what radical queer activists based in the US mean when they refuse to welcome the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” as a victory.

And so the sense of obliviousness about the existence of books I’d be interested in being sold day in day out was ruptured and replaced by a keen interest in finding books I didn’t think were available to me in Kenya’s public spaces. I haven’t bought anything else from the Hakati Lane bookstall, the Shilts’ book seems to be a neat anomaly in a collection of higher-ed texts on accounting, computing, clinical psychology and Grey’s Anatomy. The other series of books the stall had to offer, serialized romance novels, were no good for my decidedly snobbish tastes. Who could expect me to settle down to a Harlequin “novel” after ruminating over gay military history, after glossing over some of the most critical and influential magazines America had to offer?

For a brief six month period before attending university in September 2011, I continued my habit of buying and reading as many copies of Harper’s and the New Yorker as I could but inside me was a yearning for much more than the ten thousand word essay. It was about this time that Steve and I visited the famed Prestige Bookshop along Mama Ngina St only to be run out of the shop by how expensive a copy of the Communist Manifesto or Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent was.

To unemployed non-elite kids on a stipend precisely divided between bus fare, lunch money and “savings” for the luxury of a copy of a magazine months past due, spending Sh. 1600 for a book seemed, though justifiable, way beyond our means. In hindsight, I think I instinctively chose not to buy any books until I was in university and the sad thing now is that I can’t read as many books as I want to while still attending to a strict regimen of  Kafka’s sawdust* vital to my success as an undergraduate law student.

* Kafka is quoted stating that “reading the law is like eating sawdust.”

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