As Kenya’s election drew closer, one of the east African country’s first online bookshops became a go-to destination for “controversial” books about the backgrounds of the candidates and their families, as well as the history of the political system.
Nuria has been promoting lists of relevant books through social media, including those that other bookshops refuse to sell. “A lot of people have been buying political books,” says Bennet Owuonda, a 23-year-old part-time student and marketer for the bookshop, who has more than 24,000 Twitter followers. He uses his reach to give book recommendations and share updates from Nuria, which has nearly 13,000.
In May, he tweeted a list of “banned” books, saying: “there’s a reason why they don’t want you to read [them].”
These included Looters and Grabbers: 54 Years of Corruption and Plunder by the Elite, 1963-2017, by Kenyan author Joe Khamisi, which looks at corruption by Kenyan politicians; Treason: The Case Against Tyrants and Renegades, by Kenyan lawyer Miguna Miguna; and Not yet Uhuru, by Jaramogi Oginga Odinga, an autobiography by the country’s first vice-president — all of which Nuria has in stock. There is also The Struggle For Freedom and Justice, an autobiography by Kenyan nationalist and activist Bildad Kaggia, who was once a member of the Mau Mau Central Committee, which rose up against the British during colonialism. Owuonda says not even Nuria can access his book any more.
In Kenya, so-called “banned” books are not actually illegal to read, but can be very difficult to purchase due to shops refusing to stock them for fear of coming under pressure from authorities. International books have also been affected, including former Financial Times East Africa correspondent Michela Wrong’s It’s Our Turn to Eat, which documented evidence of corruption gathered by government whistleblower John Githongo.
To get around these effective bans, Nuria’s staff often approach authors directly to discuss distribution and promotion.
Abdullah Bulle, Nuria’s manager and founder, is a former banker and car parts salesman who began importing business-related books when he couldn’t get the ones he wanted in Kenya. In 2015, he set up a Facebook page to sell books to others, before upgrading to a website. Since 2018, he has had a physical store: a small shop in Nairobi’s central business district.
Even when authors get published, earning money is hard. On the streets around Nuria’s physical shop are sellers with dozens of books laid out in front of them. Some are pirated
Bulle says Nuria sells up to 100 books a day, with sales higher in the two weeks each month after salaries are paid. He was constantly taking orders while I was in the shop, using gaps between calls to answer questions.
There are about five online bookshops in Kenya, according to Bulle. “In east Africa, maybe central, [Kenya is] leading when it comes to reading. We read a lot and we are diverse readers: there are a lot of guys who read fiction, but we are also interested in books on politics and international affairs, local books.”
Nuria runs a WhatsApp group for Kenyan authors with more than 170 members. Many are self-published and struggle to get their work sold elsewhere, Owuonda explains, but Nuria will stock it and enable them to monitor sales with their own login to the website. Nuria now has books by about 350 Kenyan authors: everything from romance novels, to poetry, to financial advice.
Even when authors get published, earning money is hard. On the streets around Nuria’s physical shop are sellers with dozens of books laid out in front of them. Some are pirated, with Owuonda saying those are easy to spot because their covers are brighter and their pages fall apart quickly.
Nuria also has a book club, organised through WhatsApp. People post every day about what they are reading. “We’re not trying to sell books, we’re trying to change the culture ... One thing that makes Kenyans not like to read is because they associate it with school,” says Owuonda.
Customers in Nairobi can phone or message orders to Nuria and get a book on the same day, while next day delivery is available to most of the rest of Kenya. Nuria also sends books to neighbouring South Sudan and Uganda, and sometimes even further afield.
Sales have gone up over the last few days because many Kenyans plan on remaining at home during and after Tuesday’s election, while they wait to see will violence erupt. “They will stay home and read,” Owuonda says.
He is also reading constantly: looking for books that could inspire others, while fuelling a reading culture that he sees as an essential part of a healthy democracy.
“I have to read everything,” Owuonda says. “If I recommend [it] it’s something that really touched [my] soul.” Fiction teaches empathy; non-fiction teaches critical thinking, he adds. “Books, they make your mind grow.”