“ ‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,’ said Jojen. ‘The man who never reads lives only one’ ” wrote George R R Martin in the A Dance with Dragons, Book #5 of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, famously the almost cultic Game of Thrones TV series.

Readers in Nairobi were treated to a fun and fair book fest on 25 and 26 June, 2021 at the Alliance Française de Nairobi by independently published authors. As the writer Garrison Keillor says, “A book is a gift you can open again and again”, the NYrobi Book Fest did gift readers.

Alliance Française de Nairobi has been on the forefront of promoting new writing from Kenya through the monthly Mbogi ya Mawriters sessions hosted by the renowned writer, playwright, and broadcaster, John Sibi-Okumu. It offers space and/or hosts concerts, theatre performances, art exhibitions, book launches and much more.

The aim of the book fest was to celebrate new writing in Kenya, with a focus on indie authors besides encouraging reading culture, sharing of cultural and literary trends and ideas, and the spoken word.

What makes the NYrobi Book Fest unique is it offered a platform for independent publishers and authors to showcase their works, interact with readers, and network. Independent booksellers, like Nuria, Kenya’s premier online bookstore, also participated thus authors got an opportunity to expand their distribution and sales channels.

“Vincent, Alliance would like to do more for you guys (writers), like organise a book fair for all the writers we have featured on the Mbogi ya Mawriters platform,” Dennis Mucheru, the man in charge of the Médiathèque Alliance Française de Nairobi told me during one of my visits. “Any ideas?”

We discussed how Alliance Française de Nairobi may help new writers, including but not limited to book fairs. And that is how the NYrobi Book Fest was born. That was in February.

Preparations commenced: backroom discussions with the French Embassy, which Dennis did enthusiastically; compiling lists of (obscure) publishers and self-published authors; allocation of space; and logistics. Months later, Dennis called me with the good news.

“We have been authorised to organise a book fair.” I was elated. At last I was going to showcase my works without the looming shadow of the big publishers who steal the show every time I participate in such events.

When all was set, Dennis sent us all an email, listing all the participants: Mystery Publishers, Writers Guild Kenya, Writers Space Africa Kenya, Bloggers Association of Kenya (BAKE), Twaweza Communications, IFRA, Kwani?, Prestige Shop, Nuria Bookstore, Msanii Kimani wa Wanjiru, Chief Nyamweya, Mutendei Akhaya Nabutete, Salim Busuru, Douglas Logedi, Alex Nderitu, Makena Onjerika, Jennie Marima, Wangari the Storyteller, and Mufasa the Poet.

“Come and set up your stand,” he called and said. Thus, on Thursday 24th June, we all went to set up: Stands, set. Décor, set. What we had to do was just take our books and any branding items we wished.

Readers and visitors eager to sample what new Kenyan writing was all about started streaming in the following day as early as 9:00 o’clock in the morning. They marvelled at how much content is available from Kenya while they sampled books from stand to stand.

“Can I publish my book and sell it?” a visitor would ask. And they got all the answers they needed.

“At Mystery Publishers, we redefine African stories from what we are used to … we want to tell different African stories; stories of the future, of hope.”

“Writers Guild Kenya is the home of all writers, where you nurture your writing passion.”

“If you want a rich diversity of writings from African writers to a global audience, come to Writers Space Africa Kenya.”

“Of course, I am published myself. Look at my books,” an author would answer. And such answers from Story Moja Africa, Prestige Bookshop, IFRA, etc.

The highlight of Day 1 was the launch Mwalimu John Sibi-Okumu’s J.E. Sibi-Okumu Collected Plays 2004 – 2014 at the Wangari Maathai auditorium that evening. The event drew audience from key personalities who played a role in JSO’s illustrious career with speeches by banker and Chairman at Kenya Conservatoire of Music, Mr Isaac Awuondo and the French ambassador to Kenya, Her Excellency Aline Kuster-Ménager.

The exhibitors interacted with the most influential names in the Kenyan artistic community during the cocktail afterwards.

The last day was much more fun and engaging, with performances by Wangari the Storyteller where she entertained attendees to African folklore and other stories; a literary discussion entitled ‘Kenyan Literature – From the Past to the Present’ with writer Tony Mochama and Dr Tom Odhiambo, a senior lecturer at the University of Nairobi’s Literature department, among others.

Mufasa the Poet, a spoken word artiste, wrapped the Book Fest in the evening with a spoken word and music performance. It was a live performance like no other.

The main purpose of a book fair is not to sell books but it offers a rare opportunity to analyse the kind of readers who visit, which books are being published, what advances have been made in the publishing industry, and get to know what readers are reading. However, books were sold, and authors got new readers.

A book fair also helps create new writers, and from the advice provided by the publishers and authors, new writers were born, with Mystery Publishers signing on one writer who insisted on a ceremonial signing of the publishing agreement witnessed by his daughters.

A book fair inspires people to form the habit of reading books, reminding us that books are our best companion. It would be prudent for Alliance Française de Nairobi to organise such events regularly, and even throw in a literary prize to boot.

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