March 10, 2010

The Library on the Wrong Side of Nairobi

I just won a little contest called "Why I Write," hosted by Editor Unleashed and Smashwords. Here's my contribution:

I am a writer because somebody left a library at the end of a dirt track on the wrong side of Nairobi.

The right side of Nairobi was Parklands, where there were supermarkets and ice-cream parlors. That was where the other kids at my American school lived. But I lived on Jogoo Road, on the eastern outskirts of the city, the only white boy for miles.

Behind our house was a market, where women sold pineapples and dried fish from burlap sacks spread over the mud. To the left was a police station, from which, at night, I could hear the screams of prostitutes being whipped. To the right was the mosque that woke me every day at dawn. But if I walked along the dirt track, past the police station and around the corner, I came to a square cement-block building. It had once been painted white, but the outer walls were daubed orange with the prints of soccer balls. This was the city council library for our district, a relic of the colonial administration.

Inside, the only light came from the open door: the high windows were opaque with grime and the gray neon bulb hung vertically by a tendril. Happily, the children’s bookcase stood beside the door, so I was able to read the titles if the day was sunny. If I wanted to peruse the interior text, however, I had to lean with my back against the doorjamb, holding the pages to the light.

There were always two other people in the library: the librarian and her infant son. The librarian spent her time weaving kiondos and chewing sugar cane. Hanks of white pith in various stages of desiccation littered the floor around her desk and mingled a ripe, tangy odor with the mildew of the books. She would greet me with a grin, displaying nubbins of brown tooth, and say: “Bwana Keith! How many today?” Her son crawled around on the floor, variously chewing on the discarded sugar cane or on the books within his reach. This meant that many volumes on the lower shelves were missing pages, or had covers gnawed down to the spine.

The books were all written prior to 1963, which was when Kenya gained its independence, and were all by British authors. So for a few years, from when I started reading for myself at age six till we moved to Parklands when I was eleven, I subsisted entirely on a diet of E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis, Enid Blyton, Mary Norton, and other writers from what I still consider to be the golden age of literature. Though an antique sign above the librarian’s head warned that I could not check out more than two books per fortnight, this was waived in my case, perhaps because I was the solitary patron. I usually checked out four books at a time, which was about a week’s worth of reading.

Check-out, an elaborate procedure, involved writing my name both on the library card and in the librarian’s enormous ledger. She would then page through the book with her sticky fingers and, having carefully changed the date on her stamp, would rock it in the purple ink of the pad and apply it in two places. Her sugar-cane fingerprints acted like glue wherever she touched, so at intervals, as I read, I would have to pry two pages apart. As the paper was softened by the climate, this left a wispy nap. At home, reading in my special armchair, I would sometimes touch my tongue to these sweetened corners.

Many years later, after my first novel had been published, I returned to the library, on a private pilgrimage to this shrine that had made me a writer. I was surprised at how tiny it was: the children’s shelves were only a couple paces long. The librarian had been replaced by a young man, but the books were still there. I opened one. The last name on the card, written carefully in pencil, was my own.


  1. Congratulations - what a great piece of history. What it must have been like to grow up in a place like that. I want to know what sugar cane page corners taste like haha.

  2. Great Story, Keith :)

    Best Regards
    Marko M., Ray W. & Lena L.

  3. Allison CampbellMarch 10, 2010

    Having a steady diet of your writing will surely nourish future bookslaves-turned-masters.

  4. congratulations to you, for that you won this contest :)
    it's an amazing story, and really well written - and anyways, it's interesting to know what actually made you a writer!

    best wishes,

  5. Perfect ending.