The last days of Kenya’s old libraries

Writer Pat Hughes and calligraphy artist Christine Chege are working to restore several ancient institutions, many of which are on fire, fallen into disrepair and only passable with heavy metal stairs

When Pat Hughes first visited Kenya’s colonial-era libraries more than 30 years ago, the surroundings felt dusty and intimidating. The books were not dusty and there were no startling lighting effects, but the buildings had been ravaged by typhoons, droughts and water extraction, Hughes says, “and they were all in the process of decay”.

These antiquated, decaying facilities used to house different parts of Kenya’s colonial history, but that is no longer the case. “They are coming apart at the seams,” Hughes says.

About 130 libraries from the 1930s-1970s are lying abandoned in Kenya, and there are fewer than three dozen left from the era when millions of books, including Shakespeare, JK Rowling and Paulo Coelho, were loaned out to volunteers in vast caseloads.

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If you want to get a text or a book you’ll need to cross some jungle-like grounds and lose an incredible amount of time walking through rows of book-lined shelves and attic-like cupboards. Tours can be led through campus halls, read in pubs, or – perhaps – in overcrowded public libraries.

The process of restoring these old libraries is challenging and the job is often a team effort. The two women who share the dream to restore these archives and make them accessible for current and future generations of Kenyans have the painstaking task of restoring libraries in Nairobi’s Botanical Gardens, the Open University’s complex, and the Ministry of Education’s Bura library in Mombasa, where Hughes and a Kenyan tutor were entrusted with the project.

They are both called “apprentices” in a remodelling project in Mombasa.

These libraries have now become walkable and are surrounded by scaffolding to block off the upper floors, allowing the restoration work to begin. Chege, who along with Hughes painted murals as well as painting the floor, in addition to stenciling the library’s roof and the ceilings and walls, recently found a glimmer of hope on a photo she saw on Facebook that showed six books being carried out of the lower floors of Botanical Gardens library.

“The nearest building to them, which is 150 years old, is on fire,” Chege says. The library above they had to add a new upper level to store more books, forcing them to sink one floor deeper below ground.

These libraries were usually closed on Mondays for security reasons and they were rarely open to the public, Hughes says.

She believes they were left to decay gradually over time, “so it was almost like an ecological reaction to climate change”.

It can be hard to persuade the donors and government bodies that Kenya needs modern libraries, Hughes says. “It’s frustrating but it’s sometimes true. ‘Oh, we have a wonderful railway station that you could go to the very basics in,’” she says, referring to the central business district. “That may be, but that’s not the same thing.”

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Besides documenting the country’s historical – and some contemporary – cultural heritage, Hughes says, there are intangible benefits libraries provide.

Her visit to the Botanical Gardens was inspired by a low-hanging book on the ground floor: an illustrated pamphlet which told of a golden oldie in the library of the university of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania, before the library was built there in the mid-1950s. She discovered that the bright color of the diagram on the page had been applied by a woman, revealing she was a trader of colour.

“She told me that back in the early 20th century she would take the books in her back pocket and labour across the floors and cobblestones, picking off the paint off pages with a machete,” Hughes said.

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