McMillan’s Missing Bits

When I was 17 years old and just out of high school, I had this fabulous idea that I would spend my “gap year” (a very fanciful and generous way of describing that enforced idleness) whiling away my days at McMillan Memorial Library in Nairobi’s Central Business District. I dreamed of meandering through the book stacks, picking up some obscure tome by an unknown author, and getting lost in some make-believe world or in a niche topic that no one cares about (I’d always been that kind of child).

But that was not to be. The first time I climbed up those majestic steps, past the two lion statues, I was immediately struck at how lacklustre the actual library was. It was dark, dreary and musty; the librarians were scowling the whole time, and I left the place with my dust allergies aggravated.

I didn’t go back to McMillan until last Saturday, when Book Bunk hosted a panel discussion and day of film screenings in partnership with Baraza Media Lab. It’s part of the “Missing Bits” project, whose genesis goes back to Book Bunk’s digitisation of the archives at McMillan, starting in November 2020.

In the course of digitising, the good folks at Book Bunk began realizing some glaring gaps in the archive. There was plenty of material from “officialdom” – gazette notices, city documents – but very little material that illuminated actual Kenyan life. Even the newspapers and periodicals recorded a version of history that was heavy on official voices and institutions talking to each other. It seems the Kenyan people, Kenyan life, didn’t exist in the archive at all.

The Missing Bits project strives to crowdsource some of those missing narratives, but what struck me the most at McMillan itself is how thoughtful the digitizing interns were as they gave commentary on the pieces they were working on.  Alongside exhibits of pages from The East African Standard (did you know it used to be a broadsheet?) and The Weekly Review, the interns’ own reflections on how those 30 or 40-year-old articles made them feel about being Kenyan, or what reading old colonial ordinances triggered in them, is a small but crucial reminder that first, humans do the work of storytelling, and second, that the past is never really past.

Our lives are a living testament of it – you would be surprised how much continuity there is with the colonial structures, how much remains intact even as we’ve ostensibly had decades of “progress” and “development”. That these interns had the room to situate themselves in the work they were doing, and in those dusty “official” narratives, is far more than I experienced those many years ago when I first visited McMillan. Back then, it was obvious that that place wasn’t for me, this Saturday it clearly was.

Book Bunk is working on a third and final panel on May 21 at the newly-refurbished Eastlands Library (I can’t emphasize how wonderful this place is), and later in the year, McMillan will close for a full renovation.

In the meantime, here’s:

  • What We’re Reading: “In the Dark” an in-depth piece by Peter Guest for Rest of World, on how authoritarian regimes are using internet blackouts as an off switch for dissent. “The reason that blackouts persist, and proliferate, is that they work. There are few more effective tactics for crippling an opponent’s ability to organize or disseminate information during moments of political tension.”
  • What We’re WatchingKura, a short animated film directed by Gatumia Gatumia tackling some of the issues Kenyans have had to consider regarding our electoral process, and the democracy it is supposed to serve. It’s a fictional story that explores the sense of frustration with the state of Kenya’s leadership. The fictional film is set a day before the 2017 General Election.
  • What We’re Listening ToDear Daughter, a podcast hosted by Namulanta Kombo, winner of the BBC’s International Podcast Competition 2021 (we shared the competition announcement in this edition of Barua Ya Baraza, exciting to hear the winning podcast!) These are your letters to your daughters. What do you want them to know? What do they need to know?

As always,
Christine Mungai
Curator | Baraza Media Lab

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