Writing new chapters in history of Nairobi’s colonial-era libraries
By Lucía Blanco Gracia
Nairobi, Mar 14 (EFE).- Home to thousands of aging journals and colonial-era books, the majestic but dilapidated McMillan Memorial Library, Nairobi’s oldest, lay dormant for years until two women launched a project to give it a new lease of life.
Publisher Angela Wachuka and writer Wanjiru Koinange took on the challenge through the organization Book Bunk.
Not only are the pair helping to breathe fresh life into the McMillan library, built when Kenya was a British colony, but they have already turned their attention to two other public libraries constructed shortly after the African country’s independence in 1963.
“We are changing the landscape of Nairobi by focusing specifically on restoration of some of the city’s most iconic public libraries,” Wachuka tells Efe.
The McMillan library’s grandiose facade, with its stone-hewn columns and lion statues guarding the entrance, contrasts starkly with an interior space suffering from raised tiles, damp and neglected store rooms, some of which are piled high with chairs.
The idea to restore the building first arose when Wachuka visited the library around six years ago. What she found was a building that had been forgotten by the city and left in a “time loop,” she tells Efe.
Dating back to 1931, the construction of the library was overseen by Lucie McMillan in honor of her late husband, William Northrup McMillan (1872-1925), an American multimillionaire who settled in the British colony at the beginning of the 20th century and was known for organizing hunting trips for famous personalities such as president Theodore Roosevelt.
Anthropologist Trevas Matathia, who is part of the project, says the library demonstrated how remnants of colonialism still emanate to this day, adding that the building had a sense of “otherness” and that it was not built for the Kenyan people.
The McMillan Memorial Library, which only permitted white visitors until 1962, has two other branches in the neighborhoods of Kaloleni and Makadara, located in the east of the capital, an area where Black people were permitted to live before the country’s independence. Both outlets have since been restored by Bookbunk following a 2018 deal with the local government.
For decades, the McMillan library collection attracted the attention of academics for its wealth of literature on African culture with texts about Kenya and other British colonies at the time, from Nigeria to South Rhodesia.
These books gather dust next to an enormous lion’s head and the bust of an unknown white explorer.
But while these books talk of Africa, the vast majority are written by white colonizers.
“The collection itself was bequeathed mostly by white settlers, by British settlers, who were donating their materials to the library,” Wachuka says.
“Very quickly it became apparent that if we wanted to grow the collection we would also have to look very heavily at populating not just contemporary material but also material by Africans about Africa, that is not being done from a kind of colonial viewpoint.”
Since work on the McMillan Memorial Library began in 2020, the association has acquired 13,000 books, mainly by African authors.
Beforehand, Book Bunk spent around one year going through the thousands of books, periodicals and official bulletins at the library one by one. In all, there were 138,000 items.
To preserve some of the older artifacts, such as a newspaper from 1906, the team undertook a titanic effort to digitalize the material and create “probably the largest online archive in Kenya,” historian Chao Tayiana, a Boobunk collaborator, tells Efe. EFE