Kenya’s hidden history: National Libraries need rescue

Image copyright Stephanie Kopetzky Image caption Media scholars were using the libraries as a teaching tool Last month when two women stepped into Kenya’s National Library, their paths crossed for the first time. They…

Kenya's hidden history: National Libraries need rescue

Image copyright Stephanie Kopetzky Image caption Media scholars were using the libraries as a teaching tool

Last month when two women stepped into Kenya’s National Library, their paths crossed for the first time.

They were years apart, but they each served as the driving force behind separate efforts to revive the country’s crumbling collections.

Julie Dongo and Laura Nyira are both founder members of the Kenyan Group of Librarians, the country’s first professional association devoted to preserving its antiquated, colonial-era libraries.

Ms Dongo had been searching for answers when she stumbled upon an exhibition at the Nairobi National Museum, about the hidden archive of Kenya’s forgotten colonial libraries, that she posted online.

“I realized that we are looking at the history of this part of the country, which is becoming important as we try to understand Kenya’s past,” she said.

She learned that some of the best libraries were once set up in the capital, Nairobi, by the colonial British government. The oldest are now just piles of books and floorboards.

But they are critical for researchers studying the history of the modern, mixed-race Kenyan and the records of the European colonial era.

Image copyright Julie Dongo Image caption Ms Dongo has a soft spot for the colonial libraries, as they were able to archive life under British rule

Back in the 1920s, when Ms Dongo was 12 years old, those books and buildings recorded the lives of Kenyans who were born white in Britain or who chose to pass as white to get ahead in Kenya.

There is a particular hope in having those old institutions available to scholars in Kenya.

“We’re seeing people graduating with degrees, but you can’t pursue the same studies at the same time. There’s a lack of skills in the system,” she said.

“There’s no question it’s the only body that archives our shared history here, and it can do this because these are Kenya’s libraries.”

Ms Nyira, who used to be head librarian of the Nairobi Library, followed up Ms Dongo’s post and began a campaign for the country’s governor to activate its archives.

In August, the Nairobi County government plans to launch a new library that will include 100,000 books.

“We are still hoping that as soon as the county library opens, it can serve as a relief for us in the community,” she said.

“I’m a young woman with a child and as long as you don’t have education, if you don’t have the capital to start a business, it’s hard to take care of your children.”

Image copyright Librarian L.N. Nyira Image caption Ms Nyira advocates for the use of the libraries for teaching purposes

Ms Nyira advocates for the use of the libraries for teaching purposes to help students learn history. But in the colonial era, their unique learning opportunities relied heavily on the colonial libraries.

Books were much harder to come by, and research had to be undertaken through a small school of philosophy such as Ms Nyira’s.

She recalls a man from colonial Singapore helping her get through a difficult class. She lost count of the number of books.

The Nairobi County government has promised a new library for residents, but does not plan to restore the facilities it had in the past.

In the meantime, Ms Nyira will continue her fight for the restoration of the colonial-era libraries, so that the history of Kenya’s hidden history can be shared.

“I think it’s just important to show the sacrifices our leaders made, and this is why we are still here, because of the legacy these individuals built,” she said.

Watch the 90th anniversary documentary on the British Kenyan Library, narrated by Lord Kitchener.

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