Africa

Book Bunk is bringing these old Kenyan libraries back to life

Published 8:39 PM ET, Mon November 29, 2021
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Book Bunk was founded in 2017 to restore dilapidated libraries in Nairobi, Kenya. The Eastlands Library (pictured) is one of two libraries the team has transformed already, with a third in the works. "Libraries are one of the last kind of mutual spaces we have in any society," says Book Bunk co-founder Wanjiru Koinange. Nick Migwi/CNN
The Kaloleni Library, pictured here in 2018 before renovation, is one of the busiest in the city. Across all three libraries, about 300 people use the spaces to work or study every day. But with asbestos, old furniture and broken floorboards, the team at Book Bunk had their work cut out for them. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
Before Book Bunk restored the building, there was little running water and the bathrooms did not function at the Eastlands Library in Nairobi's Makadara neighborhood. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
"It just looked like a really old forgotten place that had at one point in history received lots of love, but then it just kind of stopped," Koinange says. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
Book Bunk set to work transforming the spaces. The group added reading nooks, new shelving and seating areas, including the ones seen here at Kaloleni, pictured in June 2020 before the books were returned to the shelves. "It's incredible what a bit of paint and some care will do for public spaces in this country," says Koinange. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
The team also put in new outdoor spaces, complete with fresh grass and gardens, that can accommodate an overflow of people when the library gets cramped with readers. They installed contemporary art in the courtyard at the Eastland Library to add some funky flair. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
The Kaloleni Library now has a dedicated children's library. But across the libraries' collections, Book Bunk noticed the Africanist collection was lacking. "We'd like to build a special collection that favors writing by and about Africans, the Black experience, the diaspora," says Book Bunk's other co-founder, Angela Wachuka. The team is adding to the collection -- Book Bunk has the East African publishing rights to "Sulwe," a children's book by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
Wachuka and Koinange are now fundraising to renovate Nairobi's central McMillan Memorial Library. Opened in 1931 by Lucie McMillan for her husband, Sir William Northrup McMillan, the library was only accessible to White colonizers until 1962. "It has its own ghosts, just in terms of Kenyans feeling that it's not quite theirs fully -- it wasn't built for them. We were not allowed to come into this building until just before independence," says Wachuka. Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
At the McMillan Library, some of the country's rare historical documents were housed in a basement prone to flooding. A team of 23 worked to digitize and preserve historical documents such as photographs, maps and letters. Nick Migwi/CNN
Book Bunk has now digitized 40,000 items, including glass plate negatives from the colonial era. It will begin collecting oral histories and community photographs to balance out the archives. "For too long our stories have been written by other people on our behalf," Koinange tells CNN. "So now let's begin to do the work to figure out what our story is and how we can share it as much as possible." Nick Migwi/CNN
Due to its historical significance, Book Bunk will work closely with the government and museums to renovate the McMillan Memorial Library. "It would have been (easy) for us to walk into McMillan and say, 'Get rid of everything. Get rid of all of the portraits of McMillan. Get rid of the books that call us barbarians and the books that treat us like we're nothing more than anthropological beings,'" Koinange says. "But it's more important to examine that history, because it's ours. We can't get rid of it." Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene
The McMillan renovation is a large undertaking, but the team says they won't stop there. "Hopefully we can be having Book Bunk trusts open all over the continent," Koinange says, "because that's my dream." Courtesy Paul Kariuki Munene