- August 23, 2021
Greenhouse Mall along Ngong road has many shops and outlets, but if you’re a reader and lover of books, none will capture your attention quite like Soma Nami Books.
Started in February this year as an online bookstore, Soma Nami grew faster than the two passionate founders expected it to, and just a few months in, they had to open a physical bookstore in the month of August.
Soma Nami, a Swahili word translating to Read With Me, has hallmarks that set it apart from other bookshops. This I discovered after my mellow chat with the affable founders Muthoni Muiruri and Wendy Njoroge, at the bookshop, two weeks after they opened.
They stock African literature only. We’ll get to the reason behind this in a few. Something that intrigued me, even more, is this deluxe space where authors and readers can host book clubs and meetings. The space that is walled with books on shelves and amazing art featuring some of the great African authors and their quotes ensures it offers a great experience, complete with a coffee station. This brilliant idea was conceived by two incredible women, Muthoni and Wendy.
Muthoni Muiruri, a social psychologist by training, works in the Humanitarian Sector with refugee resettlement. At age five, she had already discovered the magical universes hidden between covers and she would devour the Lady Bird book series at a pace her mum couldn’t keep up with. For her, it was always reading, then approaching her mum with just one specific request, “Can I have more, please?”
Later in life came a drab plot twist, thanks to the education system which does so little; nothing probably, to encourage leisure reading.
“Our education system doesn’t emphasize leisure reading. As a result, I fell out of love with reading. Sometimes I’d pick up a book, but not with the same alacrity and frequency that I used to as a kid,” Muthoni tells me.
“I kept falling in and out of love with books until in twenty-thirteen when I read Chimamanda’s Americanah. In the book, there is a character that deeply resonated with me. Ask me what it took to get me back on track with my love for reading and I’ll tell you— Americanah.”
It’s amazing how fictional characters, created in the imaginations of writers cooped up somewhere in their hidey-hole, can do much in the lives of real people. Listening to Muthoni talk about how pieces of her were sort of captured in Americanah, I couldn’t help but wonder, what other proof does the world need to begin embracing the role of fiction? Fiction really is a ghost-like representation of reality, with more to it than mere entertainment. Pay Soma Nami a visit and listen to Muthoni tell you about books, and you’ll agree with me.
Chimamanda’s Americanah introduced Muthoni into a new magical space of fiction where she joyfully learned that more than Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Chinua Achebe, there were more fun-filled parties in the form of African literature.
“Since then, I went on a deliberate hunt for African literature and that’s where my love for African books stems from. Western fiction is brilliant, but I don’t relate to the experiences. There’s this thirst in me that Western books just don’t quench.”
In 2014, Muthoni conceived an idea to start a book club. Her goal was to bring together a couple of like-minded friends who would read with her and then meet up frequently to bounce off the knowledge gained. When her idea failed to take off, she fell back on her plan B, which was joining an already existing book club that has focus narrowed in on African literature. That’s how she found herself as a member of Text Book Center Book Club, where she met, among other friends to read and volley book banter with, Wendy Njoroge.
If Muthoni was to pick a superhuman power, she tells me it would be invisibility. She’d love to walk into rooms, unseen, and listen in on conversations.
One thing that had me awed about the two founders, is how much they click. You listen to Muthoni speak, and then you listen to Wendy, and it feels like they are one and the same person. Intimately interwoven. Passion and focus aligned. If there’s something that the story of how they met and started working together reaffirms to me—it’s that what you are looking for is also looking for you.
Wendy Njoroge is a trained marketer, with an MSc in Marketing from the University of Nairobi and a BCom from Strathmore University.
She tells me, “I have worked for approximately ten years in various roles in advertising. I am most comfortable in brand building and communication roles. Further, entrepreneurship has given me an opportunity to expand outside of my comfort zone, an opportunity I am so glad to have.”
Her career grew wings in the field of advertising, but then she slowly started transitioning into retail in mid twenty fourteen. This was after she joined the marketing department at Text Book Center (TBC).
The first time I met her, I had walked into Soma Nami Books to buy Lupita Nyong’o’s Sulwe. A chum I’ve known since campus days had sent me. I consider myself introverted, but books get me talking. I started making inquiries about the new bookshop. Before I knew it, I was having this in-depth conversation with Wendy about books, you’d think we had known each other for years. She recommended books to me, gave me a tour of the bookstore, and told me stories about her love for African literature. By the time I left, I was late for a meeting and had bought two books, plus a fancy-tickler of a mug stenciled “I HAVE NO SHELF CONTROL.”
Now that’s who Wendy is. Passionate about books. Conversational; her conviviality is top-notch. Well-versed with African literature, enunciating African stories in a way I admired.
And that’s one of the major things that make Soma Nami unique. The founders are book lovers first before they are entrepreneurs. It also explains why there are titles they have stocked which you won’t find in other local book stores. Because they have interacted with readers, they are readers, they know what readers want.
I want to know the source of Wendy’s love for reading. She tells me, “I’ve been a reader for as long as I can recall. I had probably read every Sidney Sheldon and John Grisham title by the time I was Sixteen.”
“My love affair with African literature was not always a thing, but the more I read contemporary African writers, the more I felt seen and mainstreamed. The most accessible books in Nairobi tend to be foreign books. You get to read about Times Square and a white Christmas more than you read about River Road or a character eating a mango. The literature in High School did a great job at exposing me to a Pan-African experience. Beyond that, I started gravitating towards African literature because the stories resonated and the characters and settings were a lot more relatable. African books validate my experiences as a modern-day African.”
Curious, I ask, “How did you meet Muthoni?”
“I was running TBC Book Club when she joined us as a member. We became great friends, discovering every day that we had a lot in common. Our goals, vision, and ambition. She later founded a small book club, and a blog, Soma Nami, where she would do reviews of all the books she read. In 2018 I left TBC, then later joined her book club. A major problem we faced was locally accessing the books we wanted; a problem that prompted us to creatively think up a solution. Since she was already running her blog, and we both loved the name Soma Nami, we took it and ran with it. That’s how Soma Nami online bookstore came to be in February twenty twenty-one.”
She adds, “And now, it still feels surreal to this day, that we actually have a book store, a book hub!”
If Wendy was to choose a superhuman power, she would go for reading people’s minds. Her reasoning is that knowing what people are thinking would be sheer fun. She appreciates an honest and genuine person at any time and any given day of the week.
Wendy also runs Books & Wine, a business that deals with events, content, and merchandise.
The birth of Soma Nami Books
In 2017, Muthoni founded a small book club with thirteen members. Her idea was to keep it small because that way there would be meaningful interactions. She was also running Soma Nami blog, as she puts it— to decolonize our minds; tell our own stories.
After leaving TBC, Wendy joined Muthoni’s book club. But then a challenge gnawed at them. They were unable to find all the African books they wanted to read and discuss.
Muthoni concedes, “It was difficult to find African literature locally, and that forced us a couple of times to go the e-Book way or change the book.”
Wendy and Muthoni sought to solve this problem, not only for themselves but also for other readers. The question was, how do we start bringing in the books we want?
They didn’t know how to do it, but they learned. The tedious process involved approaching publishers, setting up accounts, shipping; with a lot of negotiations in-between.
Soma Nami blog soon transitioned into Soma Nami online bookstore.
One day as Muthoni was cruising her vehicle through Hurlinghum, she spotted a ‘to let’ space that was being advertised. As she had for a while been turning in her mind the idea to have a physical bookstore, she pulled over and went to check out the space.
“I immediately called Wendy,” says Muthoni. “When she showed up, she was in love with the space and was already showing me which wall we would knock down, where the kid’s section would be, and so on and so forth. Wendy just saw the space and started planning.”
“While we never got the space, it served to shift our mentality, and that’s how we later got this space at Greenhouse Mall and officially opened on the 6th of August.”
Readers all over the country are welcome to shop for books with Soma Nami and have a great experience. You can also order online, they deliver countrywide.
What makes Soma Nami Books unique from other bookstores?
Wendy has an answer for me.
“We think of ourselves as a book hub as opposed to a bookshop. The reason is that we are designed to foster discovery, interaction, and community around books.”
“The space is therefore intentionally designed with readers in mind. We want the entire reading community to feel at home in Soma Nami; authors to do their book signings, readers to meet up and hang out, as well as the solo reader to come and commune with their books and a cup of coffee.”
“Is it hard to run a business with a friend?” I want to find out from Wendy.
“It helps that we are both aligned on principles and vision. With Muthoni, I am assured of the course of Soma Nami as a business. To be honest, she is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met. I’d describe her as a solution-oriented person who never shies away from difficult circumstances. I think that already sounds like the dream partner, which she is.”
On Soma Nami Books website, they still have a blog section where Muthoni writes. I personally loved her well-thought-out and executed article on how Africa is boxed in being too political or only handling heavy themes in our stories. Whites can write about anything, and their readers will resonate. African writers should also cut the leash on creativity and embrace writing about anything. The article is titled Review From a Different Lens.
Soma Nami Books is open and ready to give you an experience like no other.
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