Re-membering Kenya: Building Library Infrastructure as Decolonial Practice

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“What are you going to do with the lion’s head?” I (AO) asked Syokau, teasingly but genuinely curious. I was referring to a stuffed lion’s head which seemed to have become somewhat of an infamous McMillan Library mascot among those who visited. The lion’s head (see figure 1) caught my eye during my first visit to the McMillan Library in February 2019; left atop a dusty table outside of the second floor Africana library, it looked as if someone had tossed it there years ago and had not bothered to move it since. The clear lack of regard for it—as if the librarians and library staff didn’t know what to do with it—was perhaps what struck me as much as the very materiality of a decaying lion’s head just laid out for anyone to touch. But a few weeks later, when I returned on a sleepy Saturday with my four-year-old son in tow, having enticed him to come with me by telling him he would get to see a real lion’s head at the library, it wasn’t there. It had been moved. Needless to say, my son was mad at me for making false promises. But the removal of the lion’s head from public view also flagged for me its paradox. The lion’s head was illustrative of a double bind that the staff at McMillan library, not to mention others working on reviving and establishing libraries in diverse postcolonial and settler colonial sites around the world, are grappling with—what to remember and forget in attempts to decolonize. What to do with the massive ivory tusks of some poor elephant who happened to be living at the wrong period of time when Kenya was a colonial site of hunting expeditions for white foreigners, like Sir William Northrup McMillan? What to do with a decaying lion’s head? These charismatic items are a strange delight for tourists to the library—Kenyans and non-Kenyans alike—although for regular library users, they are quickly normalized as part of the library’s environment. Such artifacts give the library "character" and are material reminders of Kenya’s colonial and imperial past and present. How to contextualise these materials and memories appropriately? Not to glorify or romanticize an adventurous past that centres the heinous deeds of white "frontiersmen," but also not to erase them and their historical presence, since doing so risks ignoring the influence such colonial logics had and have on continued imperial formations.

In this chapter, we reflect on these challenges and the work currently being undertaken by teams and individuals seeking to revitalise libraries in and for various Kenyan publics in Nairobi. We are in full-throated agreement with the need to decolonize libraries and other knowledge infrastructures. However, without intending to misrepresent important and necessary decolonial work, we suggest that, in practice, decolonizing might look similar to "forget and move on," a force we describe as having failed to address historic injustices and violence in the country. But if decolonizing is in fact not the same as forgetting the British legacy, what is it? We suggest that looking to progressive librarianship (Durrani 2014) might offer a counterpoint to "forget and move on" and a way to think about what decolonizing without forgetting might look like. We frame the work being done by Book Bunk, a not-for-profit trust undertaking restoration of the McMillan libraries in Nairobi, as progressive librarianship and describe the ways in which the Book Bunk team are attempting to decolonize the libraries in ways that don’t get caught in a culture of "forget and move on." While the role of the academic library is not explicitly the focus of this chapter, we believe Book Bunk’s experiences are applicable to other kinds of libraries including Nairobi’s university libraries.


Thank you to Sylvia Nam, Sandy Wenger, Melissa Wrapp and Jen Zelnick for their invaluable comments and suggestions, which helped push our early argument further. We would like to also thank Shiraz Durrani, Kim Fortun, Wanjiru Koinange, Regina Everitt and Jess Crilly for their review and suggestions. We would like to acknowledge the work being done by the teams at McMillan Libraries and Book Bunk Trust, especially Wanjiru Koinange and Angela Wachuka. We acknowledge Ukombozi Library and Vita Books for their dedication to the cause of progressive librarianship in Kenya, and Angela Okune would like to acknowledge the labour and work of Trevas Matathia who supported her during her fieldwork in 2019.