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Muthoni Garland on the power of books

Muthoni Garland

Muthoni Garland’s mission is not to be underestimated. Hers is to get a book in every hand as she believes that now, more than ever, our children need to be reading if only so they can prepare themselves for an uncertain future.

The 58-year-old highly acclaimed author, storyteller and founding member of Storymoja shares her journey and insights with Damaris Agweyu.

Muthoni, when did you first understand the power of books?

It was after reading a book called ‘Son of a Woman’ by Charles Mangua. It was the first book by an African writer that I had ever read. I was 10 years old. The book actually belonged to my father who would, every morning, go and sit in his car to read it. Unlike other books, he’ d never bring this one in the house. Seeing him do this, I was incredibly curious so after he’d finished reading it, I’d wake up very early every morning to ‘wash the car’. Once I got my hands on that book I was completely absorbed by it. What shocked me was the fact that it was written from a very Kenyan perspective. It helped me understand so many things and for the first time in my life, I could see that Africans could tell their own stories. This book had such a profound effect on me and looking back now, I think that was the point at which I knew I wanted to write.

So by the time you were ten, you could read and fully comprehend the contents of an ‘adult book’?

Yes. Right from the start, I’ve always been a reader. I got punished for reading storybooks when I should have been reading textbooks, I would be the one hiding the book beneath the book, reading under the covers and so on.

Did your parents encourage you to read?

Oh yes! I developed the habit from them. My mother was into biblical stuff and my father left a good scandal- he read a lot of African literature which was fairly salacious at the time. We grew up in a very isolated place called Dundori which is a part of the Aberdare forest. Our house had belonged to an ex-District Commissioner who was an old bachelor mzungu and judging from the library he left behind, a keen reader. A lot of the books were agriculturally oriented but there were also Greek myths, Dickens, Shakespeare and the like. I had 4 other siblings and my father insisted that all of us read every kind of book in that library and write a book report afterwards. Both my parents were very harsh but if you were seen reading, there were no chores and so the minute I would see them, I’d rush to grab a book (laughs).

And so your career choice would be obvious I imagine.

It wasn’t that obvious. I thought I wanted to be a journalist but my parents were very strongly against it. I grew up in the 60s as one of the first post-independence generation children so you have to understand there was this fear that if you went in the artistic direction with your career, then you weren’t contributing to the development of Kenya which needed hard-working people in the sciences or law or accounting.

By the time I was deciding on my career choice, Moi became President and started persecuting artists, specifically writers. My parents didn’t want me to put myself in a vulnerable position and in those days, there were hardly any female journalists. They said if I really wanted to write, then I should just do it as a hobby. There was a lot of back and forth and as a consequence, I did badly in my A- levels. I ended up in the US where I studied Business Administration with a major in marketing; eventually, I started working there in market research then came back here and worked in advertising.

Did you enjoy that?

I really enjoyed the team dynamics and figuring out how to make things work. But then I was constantly disturbed by certain things. I wondered, why am I persuading someone to buy an expensive detergent when they clearly can’t afford to say, to buy a book for their child? I mean surely it’s not so critical in terms of where you spend your money. And then I was offered a Chief Executive position but in order to do that, I had to accept accounts that I didn’t even want to have anything to do with. I should also say it would get quite frustrating when clients failed to implement things as advised. These concerns led me to quit and start my own market research company with 2 other partners.

As part of that business, one of the contracts we got included visiting schools and in the process, because I always liked stories, we started a children’s magazine called Maneno magazine. I eventually sold this side of the business to one of my partners and closed down the research side.

Why?

My husband was posted to Cairo and I decided to move with him. At the same time, my mother was really ill and needed a lot of care. I would do a lot of travelling back and forth but the fact is, you can’t run a young business from a distance. If it had been today, maybe, but in those days the internet wasn’t what it is now and in research particularly, people buy into you the person and the results you produce for them. So I found it just wasn’t working. Closing that business was a tough decision but there is always a silver lining- while in Egypt, I discovered online classes and took up writing.

What were you writing?

Fiction. From the moment I wrote my first story I knew this is the world I am going to inhabit. One of the things I learned was the importance of peer reviews- constructive criticism from others. So we’d all exchange stories and I quickly discovered everyone online was American- just because this concept spread there first- but they would ask such gaspingly weird and dare I say, stupid statements; things like, “do you live on trees?”, “I can’t believe you eat spaghetti…”

A common frustration to date.

Indeed. And so I started looking for and found the most amazing African community on a site called Zoe Trope; there were writers like Binyavanga Wainaina, Rasna Warah, Billy Kahora, Parsalelo Kantai, Chimamanda Adichie.

Binyavanga was talking a lot about wanting to start Kwani and I joined the group that called itself the founder members. We were fully reliant on NGOs for funding and it was when some foundation let us down and that I suggested we have a commercial orientation for Kwani.

I did some research with university students and came back with what I believed we needed to do: produce very small books in bigger print, at a low cost, with sagas that people love and simpler language or so intriguing that people wouldn’t mind the language. I got obsessed with the idea of making a commercial try at publishing and Binyavanga told me, “if you think it’s going to be so easy then go and do it yourself”. That basically was the genesis of Storymoja- We were 5 founding partners who put in some money and produced the first 2 books and launched in August 2007.

Which books were these?

Crown Your Customer by Sunny Bindra and Tracking the Scent of My Mother which I had written.

Tracking the Scent of My Mother was rather a big deal.

It had just already been shortlisted for the Caine Prize that year so there had been a lot of press and this was one of the reasons we chose to publish it. But we had no idea how to run a publishing house because we all came at it as writers- we didn’t even know what font to use! Tracking the Scent of My Mother is in comic sans because we got some young guy to design it who as it turns out doesn’t read and he thought the title sounded like something young (laughs). And that was just our first mistake.

With my marketing background, I had to estimate the size of the market to decide how many books to print and I naively used the classical marketing rationale. I worked out that the potential market would be half a million and wanted to produce just 10% of that. We ended printing 20,000 copies of each book.

Now I’ll say this to spare anybody who’s thinking about getting into publishing, never print more than 2,000 copies until you are sure it’s going to take off. Anyway, we launched with a storytelling festival in December 2007 and called it the Nyama Choma Fiesta. The idea was to fool people into coming to the Impala Grounds thinking they are coming to eat Nyama Choma and then we would unleash all these amazing writers on them, Oyunga Pala, Sunny Bindra and all these other cool guys talking about books. The event would end with a storytelling competition which would also help us gather stories for the next lot of books.

But there would still be some Nyama Choma, right?

Oh, there was Nyama Choma alright. We were so sure we’d get tons of people so we got 30 goats to sell on site which, in hindsight, is ridiculous. Maybe 10 goats were consumed by a very small group of about 300 people. After the function, I ended up filling my freezer and calling friends to ask them to store boiled goat and now I can tell you for free boiled frozen goat will last (laughs).

In the end, the competition was won by the now very famous Eric Omondi who was then a university student at Daystar. We convinced Linus Gitahi who was the CEO at Nation Media Group to offer an internship as the prize.  So Eric got his internship there and the rest is history.

Some good came out of it.

Absolutely. But then later that year, the post-election violence happened. We had just received 40,000 books and now they were sitting in my garage at home because not a single bookseller was interested in distributing them.

It was only the following year in July that I managed to get into Uchumi supermarkets and because we were now in Uchumi, Nakumatt’s Books First followed suit and took some books. I spent literally every Saturday in 2008 and 2009 in either Uchumi or Nakumatt standing in the isle stopping people and hawking my books, I’d be like, “Hello, my name is Muthoni, would you like a Kenyan book, I’ve written this one will you support me”.

And did they support you?

Let’s just say I got a lot of information in terms of what people are interested in. I heard a lot of comments around people wanting to support Kenyans but they would be like, “you know we don’t read if you had books for children we might consider buying”. In a way, this pleased me because I’ve always liked children’s stories.

I used to make up stories for my children literally every night when they were growing up so I thought, hmm, that’s even easier than writing for adults. So in 2010, we started the children’s stories. We launched through a spelling competition between schools and got Citizen TV onboard. We managed to penetrate 8 constituencies which was an interesting journey because then I realized there’s something very wrong with our education system. We came across some teachers who can’t spell, we saw the stark differences between the children in different schools- you cannot take a child from most public schools or low-cost private schools and have then compete in a fair way with children in upmarket schools let alone the international schools. The way they are taught is so different and so their learning outcomes are so different.

How exactly?

Well you meet a standard 7 child in a public school and they are struggling just to communicate and you can tell it’s the language. When you give them something to read, it’s at a standard 2 or 3 level, on the other end, the children in the more privileged schools are reading at a much a higher level than the books that are targeting them.

I became very aware of how we are excluding and disenfranchising children through our education system and here we are talking about more than half the population. And then I started reading the Uwezo reports which look specifically at this issue because what they do is go round schools and give children from different age groups a small simple passage to and see if they are able to read it. Those reports are scary.  They show that roughly 25% of the children in standard 7 cannot read effectively at a standard 2 level. And it affects schools where our house helps’ children, our guards’ children, subsistence farmers’ children go.

The policymakers don’t take their children to those schools and so there is no interaction between the worlds and because of that, we don’t understand how structurally unfair it is.

In the end, what this means is that if I’m hiring today at Storymoja and I’m looking for somebody who has strong oral and written communication skills, who is able to present and analyze information, I will end up favouring the student who went to a private school not because they are brighter but because they’re just advantaged that way.

That’s disturbing.

It really bothered me and I started thinking there’s got to be something we can do about this because fundamentally, I know that if somebody reads a lot and a lot of research has gone into this, it teaches them language. And even from my own testimony, I grew up in Dundori and people keep telling me, “you have such an incredible facility for the English language” and I say its because from when I was 2 years old, I was immersed in books.

Putting aside any socio-economic factor, so much research supports the fact that if a child is exposed to a text-rich environment, they are more likely to have strong vocabulary at a younger age, strong vocabulary means that they understand the language well enough to move from just learning how to read to reading to actually learn. So they learn because they understand the words that are on the page.

I saw this was so true because whenever we tell children stories, it doesn’t matter whether I go to upmarket schools or a school where they have 1 toilet for 700 students, they’ll understand it in terms of ability to absorb what you are saying.

The quality of conversation you then have is sometimes even richer in the school that faces a lot of economic issues because they have been tried and tested by life so they have a deeper, more nuanced understanding of some of the issues that the stories bring out. But the striking thing to me is clearly their ability is the same as that from the more privileged children. So if you can’t understand the question it’s because you don’t understand the language in which it is written and then you won’t pass an exam, even if you know the answer.

This is how I got to what my life mission is, ‘get a book in every hand’. We’ve got to somehow make sure that this disadvantage is addressed because it’s not difficult.

Do these books have to be read in English?

When it comes to children, the language doesn’t matter much, ideally, you should read in the language spoken in that community. However, I understand in Kenya its difficult because, in urban areas, we tend to live in mixed communities so there’s no one predominant language spoken that you can enforce as the language you will teach in, which is why vernacular teaching has never taken off. But when you look at the science behind how children learn, if a child grows up in Makueni and Kikamba is the language spoken at home and taught in school then if the child reads is in Kikamba, they are reading for understanding. But what happens is the child speaks in Kikamba then when they come to standard 1 they are being taught in English.

Politically it’s difficult to enforce so what we say is English and Swahili. When children are very young, from 0 to about 8 years, they have the strongest capacity to learn. This is the time to really push and I mean really challenge a child. At that point they can absorb, they are curious, they don’t yet know who they are so you’re opening their eyes to all sorts of possibilities and its in an interesting way. The trick is finding books that align with their interests that’s why it’s important to have all kinds of books of different genres. Explore your child while they are young and books are a great way to explore their interests.

We’re going to get a book in every hand no matter your social class or location we’re going to find a way to make sure you have access to books. We’ve tried all sorts of experiments over the years and in 2011, we started a program called ‘start a library’ where we get donations from people and take them to schools.

How many schools have you covered so far?

We’ve done 151 out of 28,000 schools. We’ve got incredible partners and collaborators and those who know us love what we are doing but there is a heck of a lot of work to be done. Too many people still haven’t heard of Storymoja.

The trouble is the book culture in Kenya is mostly centred on the education system.

It is. Probably 95% of books sold in Kenya are to do with the education system, that was really shocking to me. The first children’s books we took to what was then KIE for vetting for sale in public schools, we couldn’t get for approval because of rules like: You can’t mix English and Swahili in a book, you can’t have a tree that’s got eyes on it, you can’t have candy pink houses- they have to be grey or brown and I’m like what is wrong? You’re limiting creativity!

We had some memorable struggles and come 2012, the company would have collapsed because yes you might have a huge vision but if you don’t have the finances to keep a company going, it’s not going to work. I realized you can’t have a maverick strategy in an industry that you don’t understand, you’ve got to first find out what is that the big boys do. And so I hired someone from one of the big publishing as a Managing Editor and said OK, now let’s develop and deliver education material because then with it, we can get into schools and we can use that as the backbone for the business then whatever profit we make, we can indulge our passion for the stories.

In 2013, we started with revision books for primary and secondary schools and that was when Storymoja started growing, before that, we’d been running the company on borrowed money and by this time all but 1 shareholder had left.

Many people know Storymoja for its festivals, why did you stop running them?

To give you some background, let me begin with the way they started. I was in the UK and ended up at the Hay Festival and witnessed the most incredible discussions going on. I listened to people like Jimmy Carter and Alain De Botton and  Petina Gappah talk about disruptive topics and I was blown away.

I tried to persuade the festival organizers to come to Kenya but they weren’t open to the idea. Dayo, the other shareholder who remained, had just written a book that was getting a lot of positive press in the UK and it was when I went with her the following year that the language shifted.

The organisers brought in researchers and said they would train us on logistics. The first festival was rather chaotic and I got to a point where trying to grow a publishing house while running a festival where 80% of the time was spent not on designing or managing the festival but fundraising to be able to afford it was a nightmare.

So if you tell me today I’m going to give you 20 million shillings to run the biggest international festival in Kenya I’ll take it and I’ll run one that will amaze you but if you give it to me the week before the festival or if you give me only 2 million to start with, I can’t do it because of the sheer organizational challenge that goes behind it. Not having financial backing at the time it’s required made us decide to put it aside and think how to do it better. And losing Professor Kofi Awoonor in the Westgate siege was such a wake-up call on how big the responsibility we have when we bring people in. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened anywhere else but it was devastating.

Stories are, ultimately, the best educators- Muthoni Garland
What would you say is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in the industry?

It’s an expensive business to run. When we started, we thought we just needed to have 1 or 2 books. But then we realized that if we managed to convince you to buy a book, you become a potential repeat customer so we have to always have other options available. For that to happen, we need a big range of books and then the barrier becomes the expense that goes into developing and printing all these books that will then sit in a store.

One of the hardest decisions was deciding to focus on one area in the business- content development. So we went from 23 books in 2013 to 300 last year. In a way, the new curriculum has been a blessing because then the cartels and the established patterns were broken and gave us an entry. I was also very excited by it because it addressed a lot of issues that I had about the education system which we all felt was too focused on exam results as opposed to understanding.

Are you getting any government support?

Not nearly enough. And they are incredibly disorganized- you get a letter asking for books to be submitted for approval for the curriculum a month before they are needed. We need to be given 6 months minimum if we are going to be expected to do a thorough job. It’s not a surprise when you see scandals with mistakes in books but nobody looks back and asks why are the mistakes happening in the first place.

And a few years ago, they introduced VAT on books. There are enough economic models that show that societies that read more, do better economically so you’d think it would be one of the exemption categories but it isn’t!

There are also still a lot of piracy cartels. 2 years ago, we won a set book which is a literature book that is read by every secondary school student in the country- the minute it was approved, people had stolen the artwork, copied and started selling it. And I hate to say this but a lot of parents are careless about how they purchase books. If you’re going to buy a book for your child, at least open it to see the contents. We’ve had piracy cases where somebody just puts the right cover on a book that has nothing to do with it. 

A lot of people have gone to schools where they are told that reading non-textbooks takes away from their ability to get grade A.

Muthoni Garland
For any writer who’s reading this and might be interested in publishing with you what are the steps?

We have a submissions portal on our website and once we receive the manuscript, we acknowledge receipt and if we see that it’s not right for us, we’ll tell you. For the record, we only publish books targeting ages 4-16.

Does the writer bear any costs to have their work published by you?

No. we assume all costs including editing, artwork illustration, printing, warehousing, booksellers- we manage the whole chain and have booksellers in every corner of the country.

Most people think publishers do is print- the printing is the very last thing after all the thinking has been done. Most of our work is editorial and if you’re a good editor, please get in touch with us, there is such a shortage, partly because our system doesn’t favour those skills and partly because a lot of people don’t know how to write. For a long time, people weren’t aware of editing as a career and yet I think it’s going to be one of the most sought after careers in the future because there’s a lot of content creation now.

Why do you think Kenyans aren’t big on reading?

​Let me start on a positive note, the change has been extraordinary- when Kwani brought Chimamanda the first time about 8 years ago, I remember sitting there with the team and saying, we are going to be embarrassed. This is a very hot young Nigerian writer who is getting lots of attention around the world but because Kenyans don’t read they don’t know this. So how are we going to get enough people to come and listen to her after we’ve incurred all these costs to bring her here? I remember calling everyone I knew to attend the event and we ended up with 40 people. Then 5 years later, Kwani brings her back and this time she had just published Americanah- you literally had to elbow your way into the room. People were buying stacks of her books for their relatives and friends. I was gobsmacked. It goes to show the reading culture is growing.

It will get there, we just need to disrupt something in the process to change people’s perceptions that African stories are not told well or the books aren’t well designed or whatever.

But the problem stems from the fact that a lot of people have grown up without books. They have gone to schools where they are told that reading non-textbooks takes away from their ability to get grade A. Many of the children who have listened to these teachings have done well because many of them are the accountants, the lawyers, the doctors. And so even if I come in with my story that their children need to read they’re like, “well I didn’t read and I’m doing very well“. Somewhere in their head, they kind of know it’s a good thing because no one will tell you reading is bad for you, but in actual practice what do they do? You go to their homes and find the big TV to watch movies but not a single shelf for books. Now that, more than anything, upsets me because stories are ultimately the best educators.

When I was growing up, my TV, my movie, my Gameboy was my grandmother and it was the same for the generations before her. And now suddenly I hear people say things like reading bedtime stories to children is a Western concept. What are you talking about? Storytelling is the most African thing you can think of!

Is the abandonment storytelling just another side effect of the times we live in?

It’s the mixture of things: with a school system that says to be educated means passing exams, a career system that says if you have a job, you will have no time for your children; a value system that says hustling to provide for your children is more important.

Now I’m not saying that you shouldn’t hustle to provide for your children but should it be so overwhelmingly important that it overrides any need for you to spend time with your children? By the time your child is going to University, they’ve absorbed value systems from watching you and there have been no avenues for you to have conversations- because it’s not just the reading that suffers, it’s also a lot of parents  don’t have meals with their children because by the time they come home the children have gone to bed.

I hear  a lot of middle-class parents say, “oh you know I cannot hire a house help without 4th form education because they are going to do homework with my children“, but then in so doing they are also imparting their values and their belief systems on the child at the time when they are most vulnerable. So all this mix has led us to this place where we now need to do a lot of work to convince people not to just say they know its good to read but also live your life accordingly. Make sure if you build a house, it has shelves for books- we need to go to property developers and challenge them!

Just to be clear, when you say reading it’s not just limited to books.

No. You can read in any format. One of the greatest developments is the growth of blogs and these are helping grow the reading culture. My biggest worry is, depending on which stats you follow, somewhere between 40 to 70 % of all existing jobs will disappear within the next 10 years.

I recently read about how, in China, they’ve introduced the first Artificial Intelligence news Presenter on TV. It simulates the voice, facial movements and gestures of human news presenters. So how does the education system prepare a child for a future like that? At least the industrial age education I got prepared me for the world  I’m living in now where the majority of jobs come from factories, where hierarchical structures work and are in fact necessary, where the top management only needs to be well educated because the rest are just following instructions. But now, this world is changing so fast and the education we are giving children is not adequate. What do you do when you don’t know what the world we will be living in will be like?

Do you think our new education system will be capable of addressing this? 

It will to a large extent, and now parents need to understand this new curriculum. One thing our president has said that I would endorse 100% is that parents need to stop treating teachers like foster parents, they have a role in educating their children. Now we know the reason they do this isn’t because they are bad people or don’t want to do it, its because they don’t know that they need to do it or how to do it.

If all these people who have a lot of sway in our society would make a case of why it’s so important for children to read so that people in our industry could then talk about the more technical delivery aspects I think then we’d have a system that works.

You see examples in Finland which has one of the best education systems in the world- you have to have a PhD to teach kindergarten, a Masters to teach primary and for university, you can have Bachelors degree. They start by immersing their children in a world that is very curious. Formative years are about exploring your environment and this is perfect because they are taking advantage of something that children are innately equipped with: an insane interest in knowing the why.

And curiosity breeds imagination.

Absolutely. In this part of the world, we are encouraged to hide what we don’t know but in America, they celebrate curiosity. When I was studying there I used to laugh at some of the questions the other students asked. I’d sooner wait to find out some things on my own than ask ‘dumb’ questions. Later I learnt the importance of having that orientation of constantly questioning.

Creativity is not just about making art, it’s about coming up with products that make life easier and this way of thinking is inbuilt in the American system. This is why they own more patents than any other county in the world- in fact, all countries combined have fewer patents than America.

What I love about the new curriculum is its encouraging children to identify issues and go and study them- they are not going to teach you photosynthesis or osmosis they want you to go and discover it and write a report once you’ve lived it- it’s fun and parents can also be a part of this journey.

For more wisdom and insights from Muthoni Garland, get your copy of Different Paths, One Journey HERE.


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