Halfway through the Nairobi International Book Fair’s opening ceremony on Thursday, I knew I’d replay the whole afternoon in reverse—the charged momentum of rushed moments like something from a movie, the scent of newly-published books everywhere, the comfort of relaxing into a zone of books like a kind of melting, like a liquid filling up space, the swell of bodies moving like one thing, their feet pounding on the floor of the venue, the techno and electronic music that pulsed, lights sparkling like confetti, swirling around excited children who had a mood of wonder and innocence, like they were standing inside something special, protected from a dangerous world—evoking a simpler, much happier time.
Organised by the Kenya Publishers Association (KPA), the Nairobi International Book Fair—one of the biggest assemblies of publishers and their wares in Africa—by many accounts, is the second largest book fair in Africa. This year, it attracted many local and international exhibitors and organisers estimated a total number of more than 26,000 visitors to the fair.
To match the spirit of the Competence-Based Curriculum (CBC) that focuses on promoting every learner’s potential, the theme of this year’s fair (running from Wednesday, September 27 to Sunday, October 1, 2023) is “nurturing talent through publishing”.
The guest of honour for the opening ceremony was Education Cabinet Secretary Ezekiel Machogu who was ably represented by Dr Elyas Abdi, Director-General of the Ministry of Education. Other special guests included Defence CS Aden Duale, former Head of Public Service Francis Muthaura, former Cabinet minister Beth Mugo, Ms Gabriela Martinic (the Argentine Ambassador to Kenya) and Dr Jafar Barmaki (the Iranian ambassador to Kenya).
Other prominent Kenyans who attended were bookmen Dr Henry Chakava and David Muita and academicians Prof Ratemo Michieka, Prof Kithaka wa Mberia, Dr Frank Njenga and others.
As the Kenya Publishers Association chairman, Mr Kamau Kiarie, noted, paraphrasing the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s words, “Never before, in the history of this book fair, was so much honour bestowed upon so many book lovers by so many prominent personalities. This is, indeed, our finest moment”.
When Defence CS Duale spoke, he celebrated the written word especially as one of the newest writers in town with his memoirs titled, For the Record. He emphasised that we should entrench reading and writing in our culture. “Books are our passports to other times and cultures,” he declared. He revealed a secret– jotting a day’s highlights at the end of every day.
He said that even when he was the Majority Leader in Parliament, dealing with 349 Members of Parliament, at the end of each day, he would jot down the day’s highlights. After he lost the position of Majority leader due to the politics of the time, he found himself with a lot of free time and he delved deeply into writing his memoirs. His advice is that people should write something every day.
In her speech, former Cabinet minister Beth Mugo quoted the adage, “Bury my bones but keep my words” to emphasise the immortality of words, especially the published word. Sitting next to Ambassador Muthaura, she briefly evoked the time when Ambassador Muthaura was Head of the Civil Service—a less desperate and more hopeful time. Though she didn’t mention former President Mwai Kibaki, in my mind, he galloped into the scene. At a time of so much disappointment, so many deferred hopes and all certainties blurred and dimmed, former President Kibaki loomed large—an unburied ghost with a frozen expression as he looks at us the way a father looks at a child causing him shame and we are all dutifully lining up to cause him grief!
Obviously, the challenges now are different but hopefully, the current administration will manage to revive the economy using Kibaki’s magic wand. And heaven help them if they fail to turn around the economy because Kenyans were optimistic about all the campaign promises!
The overall message from all the speakers was that Kenyans should do whatever it takes to cultivate a reading and writing culture.
And the book fair was more than a gathering of book lovers. It was also a platform for networking, deals and collaboration with a special focus on the selling and buying of intellectual property rights. At the book fair, there was also representation from the African Publishers Network (APNET) with representatives from different parts of the continent.
APNET is the umbrella body of all publishers in Africa and is led by Mr Lawrence Njagi, a former chairman of the Kenya Publishers Association. “We are glad that as KPA, we are enhancing intra-African trade, which is the best way of growing African economies, and more so, the knowledge economy,” said Mr Kiarie.
As we build our knowledge economy, we should remember the words of Albert Einstein that, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” As Jenna Wortham recently wrote in The New York Times, “What we know is limited. What we can imagine—especially for ourselves—is limitless”. And books can set the imagination on fire, not just to acquire knowledge for a time but to constantly inspire life-long learning.
The writer is a book publisher based in Nairobi. [email protected]