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African publishing innovation showcase: Book Bunk

A less prominent but equally crucial strand of the APIF’s mission is to democratize book access and nurture reading cultures where they are found wanting. Libraries play a role in addressing both factors, by offering people a space where books, reading, events and services are on offer to entire communities, regardless of status or income. 

During the first half of its four-year mandate, the APIF has selected two library projects each year to support. In 2021, the fund is working with Book Aid International to build a library in the Zanzibar region of Tanzania. Book Aid will transform three shipping containers into fully-equipped libraries in rural Dunga, where children can read, learners can study, and adults can learn new skills and knowledge.

In Zimbabwe, the country’s most celebrated living poet, Chirikure Chirikure, will use the APIF’s support build a modern community library in the Nemashakwe area of the Gutu district. The project will provide 800 students and youth access to books, a place to study, and programs to attain livelihood skills.

In 2020, the Fund gave its backing to two Kenyan projects. One called ‘Exposing Hope’, with the goal of building a school library in Kenya’s sprawling Kakuma refugee settlement; the other led by Book Bunk, a Nairobian nonprofit created to reclaim, restore and revitalize libraries in the Kenyan capital.  

Angela and Wanjiru site visit

Kaloleni, desks

Book Bunk, described as a ‘social impact company’, was started in October 2017 by author Wanjiru Koinange and publisher Angela Wachuka. Their vision was to turn the iconic but long neglected McMillan Memorial Library, plus its separate Kaloleni and Makadara branches, into modern, enticing, community-serving facilities.

And they have succeeded: Book Bunk and its partners completed the restoration of the Kaloleni Library in August 2020, despite the strict, sweeping closures imposed amid COVID-19. This was largely thanks to the fact that the workforce was recruited locally and therefore not subject to movement restrictions. 

After several years of researching, planning, lobbying and implementing, Angela, Wanjiru and the dedicated Book Bunk team have transformed the dilapidated buildings and their obsolete, colonial-era book collections into fresh, user-friendly incubators of knowledge, community cohesion, and cultural autonomy. 

Angela Wachuka explained that Book Bunk’s overarching objective was to reclaim the McMillan library from its segregationist, colonial origins and hand it back to today’s Nairobians.

Kaloleni wide room‘This really bothered us from the get-go, because you see that kind of history reflected even in the collection of books; on the shelves you don’t see Nairobians, or Kenyans, or Africans for that matter,’ she said. ‘We held a series of consultations with the public to find out who was using the library and how, and to ask what they wanted to see change. What they told us became the first thing we started to do, things like Wi-Fi installation, the kinds of materials available, but also in terms of the diversity of experience that’s available in those spaces.’ 

 In terms of who has been using the library since Book Bunk took over, Angela said, ‘We’re seeing a lot more senior citizens come in, telling us they crave cultural events that connect them with younger people, and this made me think about the events I attend in Nairobi, and wonder how many of them are actually targeted at senior citizens.’ Kaloleni library exterior view

Book Bunk invested their $50,000 APIF grant in the restoration of the Kaloleni branch, which is the smallest of the three sites and caters mainly to children. In addition, Dubai Cares, the UAE-based philanthropic development organization that finances the APIF, provided an additional donation of around 5,000 books to stock the Kaloleni Library.

Kaloleni family photoThis year, Book Bunk has already completed work to digitize approximately 24,000 at-risk items, such as the photographic collection, spanning from the late 1800s to the early 1950s, and the newspaper archive, containing 13,350 issues. These materials contain many decisive historical moments during Kenya’s struggle for independence, such as the Mau Mau uprising, political assassinations, social and cultural developments and human rights 

The next big step for Book Bunk is the architectural restoration of the main McMillan Library, which is due to start later in 2021.