In the build-up to the 2007 General Elections, Angela Wachuka visited Kenya from London. When violence broke out in December of that year, she decided to stay. Back north, Ms Wachuka had met and become quick friends with the late Binyavanga Wainaina, one of Kenya’s most celebrated authors.
That is how she found herself as the managing editor of Kwani Trust, a Kenyan-based literary network deeply steeped in the development of creative writing. She held this office for close to a decade before becoming one of Kwani’s directors.
Wanjiru Koinange penned The Havoc of Choice, a book based on the political upheaval that had cemented Ms Wachuka’s decision to move back home for good.
Their paths were destined to cross, as they did. The duo met during the planning of the Kwani Litfest where Ms Koinange took on the role of producer.
On the back of a successful festival in 2011, Ms Wachuka and Ms Koinange decided to organise the next year’s event at a public library.
That is how they found themselves walking up the steps past the marble lions and at the doors of McMillan Library in downtown Nairobi.
“It was immediately evident that the space couldn’t work for our event, for any event,” Ms Wachuka says of the state of the McMillan at the time.
They moved elsewhere for the Litfest but the iconic building that is the McMillan Library stayed with them.
In 2017, Book Bunk was founded, the brainchild of the two friends, with the restoration of some of Nairobi’s most iconic libraries as its core responsibility.
Ms Wachuka is a voracious reader and with writers for parents, she cares deeply for the city’s social infrastructure. “The library took me to so many places before I went there,” she says.
In 2017, Ms Wachuka and Ms Koinange approached the Nairobi County government with a proposal – to partner with the view to improve the McMillan Library. At Kwani, Ms Wachuka would send her published works there but quickly realised that this was not impactful. There was not even a catalogue or borrowing system.
“It’s such a big building in the middle of the city which people just walk past,” Ms Wachuka says of the McMillan. She believes this to be based on the fact that Nairobi’s residents don’t feel like they own it. And they’re right. It wasn’t built with them in mind.
There was, however, no template to undertake such a partnership but Ms Wachuka’s background in law stood her in good stead to come up with one.
They recruited trustees, set up a trust and then went back to the County offices to sign the proposed agreement. She hails the public’s participation in the blueprint they came up with.
“When we began, we thought we’d go in, fix the building and hasta la vista (goodbye; see you later)!” she recalls of their initial plan. “We realised you can’t do this without centering people.”
Book Bunk intended to start at McMillan before doing the same work in two other facilities – Kaloleni and Eastlands Library.
That did not go as planned, given the listed status of the McMillan Building, meaning that any changes would have to go through tedious and meticulous paperwork.
Today, Ms Wachuka is glad that their plans worked out differently. The facilities at the Kaloleni and Eastlands sites are complete with the libraries now in full use, the former being a children’s library.
This experience they hope to bring to McMillan where significant work in cataloguing, upholstering of furniture and digitisation of material are at an advanced stage.
‘Show me the money!’
Book Bunk writes proposals and makes grant applications to foundations, corporate partners and individuals to fund their work. Ms Wachuka states they also qualify for funding specific to culture. They are currently in the process of fundraising for works at the McMillan Library.
They count on the support of Nairobi’s County Government who are the owners of the buildings they hold in trust. In addition, they have received support from Sharjah World Book Capital for the Eastlands Library, Dubai Cares and the National Bank of Kenya funded Kaloleni among a host of other partners who have bought into the idea.
At the moment, services are offered for free though Ms Wachuka says it will be inevitable to charge a small fee for the installations to sustain themselves.
“You don’t want to fall into the trap of being 100 percent donor reliant,” she says.
“We are careful not to come in with our own impositions,” Ms Wachuka says of the model they learned early on. Ideas for usage of the spaces are done through surveys with the local community before designers and architects draw up plans.
One of the really special things, Ms Wachuka says, is offering arts education to the local community. Parents whose children visit the Kaloleni and Eastlands Libraries are invited quarterly and the consensus has been the positive effects and confidence the children have gained from interacting with the spaces and their programmes.
Initiatives such as Hepa Jam where the doors of the facilities are open for longer have seen homework clubs and local tutors make a huge impact on the Kaloleni and Eastlands regions’ school-going children.
The teams that work at these two facilities are also entirely from the area, giving livelihoods to the community.
Book Bunk are ‘quite intimately’ involved in policy-level conversations given that Kenya is one of only a handful of countries in Africa that taxes books. Ms Wachuka, a founding member of the Creative Economy Working Group, a collection of professionals working in the Arts have recently presented a memorandum to the government.
This is with the view to effecting changes to the Film and Stage Plays Act among other legislation written as far back as 1930 which have been used to limit content to the public.
“It’s a conversation that Book Bunk wants to lead and it’s time to get all hands on deck,” Ms Wachuka contends. “If you tax knowledge, that can never end well!”
With the team at Book Bunk leading the charge to rebuild libraries and social places as well as affect policy, the communities they affect can only come out the other end the better for it.
As Orpah’s (one of the children at the library) mother said, their children are now able to better express themselves.