One of the most pervasive assumptions among observers and commentators about Africa is the dearth of a reading culture among Africans. These assumptions are usually in the form of lamentations over why Africa has not, in recent times, produced distinguished writers and authors in the league of Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Nadine Gordimer, Nurrudin Farah, Ngugi wa Thing’o, Dorris Lessing, and Nawal el Saadawi, among others, or why existing writers are not producing trail-blazing, high-caliber publications. There are even jokes about the poor reading culture in Africa, such as that, if you want to hide something from an African, place it inside a book. It will be safe there because nobody will be interested in opening, let alone reading, the book.1See, for example, Emmanuel Danstan Chinunda, Grappling with Change in Africa: The Dream of Prosperity Using African Wisdom (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2014), 56. Most observers claim that African writers are not interested in writing or publishing books because Africans do not like to read and their books will not be bought or read by Africans. Others claim that Africans’ reading tastes have changed and they now prefer Western writers’ works to their own, that Africans just do not have the time to read, or that Africans are illiterate and cannot read books even if the books are there. There are also those who claim that the quality of education in Africa has deteriorated to the point that a majority of African school graduates do not have the inclination to read, or the ability to read and comprehend what they read. Others claim that African leaders prefer a gullible citizenry and therefore deliberately destroy the education system to prevent people in their countries from reading and getting informed. Other versions of this story contend that although the reading culture in Africa is very poor, some countries, such as Nigeria and South Africa, have a better and stronger reading culture. For more of this see: Adewale Kupoluyi, “Africans and Poor Reading Culture,” AllAfrica, April 28, 2011, https://allafrica.com/stories/201105021092.html; Timothy Kalegyira, “Why Do Africans Find Reading Difficult?,” Daily Monitor, September 4, 2016, http://www.monitor.co.ug/OpEd/Commentary/Why-do-Africans-find-reading-difficult-/689364-3368548-1096mpsz/index.html (accessed June 24, 2018); Adaobi Tricia Nwabani, “The Secret of Nigerian Book Sales,” New Yorker, October 1, 2015, https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/the-secret-of-nigerian-book-sales (accessed June 24, 2018). A common variation of this assumption is that Africans do not have time for or interest in their history.2 The most common reason given for Africans lacking interest in their history, apart from the usual arguments about poverty, illiteracy, ignorance, and time, is that their history, African history, is not African enough or that its production is dominated by non-Africans. See, for example: Robtel Neajai Pailey, “Where Is the ‘African’ in African Studies?,” African Arguments, June 7, 2016, http://africanarguments.org/2016/06/07/where-is-the-african-in-african-studies (accessed June 25, 2018); Edward A. Alpers and Allen F. Roberts, “What Is African Studies? Some Reflections,” African Issues 30, no. 2 (2002): 11–18; Paul Tiyambe Zeleza, Manufacturing African Studies and Crises (Dakar, Senegal: CODESRIA, 1997); V. Y. Mudimbe, The Invention of Africa: Gnosis, Philosophy, and the Order of Knowledge (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988); Stephen N. Ndegwa, “The Struggle for Relevance in African Studies: An African Student’s Perspective,” Issue: A Journal of Opinion 20, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 42–45. Whether referring to the dearth of a reading culture or a disinterest in history among Africans, observers and commentators tend to view Africans as too poor, illiterate, lazy, or busy fighting to survive to have the time for reading or interest in their history. Such assumptions are even common within academia. 3For example, the renowned Prof. Taban Lo Liyong referred to East Africa’s poor writing and reading culture as a “literary desert” (Taban Lo Liyong,“East Africa, O East Africa I Lament Thy Literary Barrenness,” Transition 50 [1975-76]: 43), and, most recently, as a “literary dwarf,” as quoted by Evan Mwangi, “Why East Africa Still Remains a Literary Dwarf,” Daily Nation, Friday, April 16, 2010, https://www.nation.co.ke/news/Why-East-Africa-still-remains-a-literary-dwarf-/1056-900798-s3fyeh/index.html (accessed July 7, 2018). Many such scholars have called for the transformation of African writing and reading culture from a literary desert to a literary Savannah through the establishment of high-quality education, or indigenization of the system of knowledge in Africa. For more of this see, for example: Ngugi wa Thiong’o, Decolonising the Mind: Studies in African Literature (Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1986); Felix Maringe, “Transforming Knowledge Production Systems in the New African University,” in Knowledge and Change in African Universities: Volume 2—Re-Imagining the Terrain, ed. Michael Cross and Amasa Ndofirepi (Rotterdam, the Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2017), 1–18.
We initiated the research project “Curating Kisumu: Adapting Mobile Humanities Interpretation in East Africa” in 2014 and its successor, “Curating East Africa: A Platform and Process for Location-Based Storytelling in the Developing World”4Both funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). in 2017, with the conviction that by pairing public history and digital humanities methods with collaborative, transnational research and a healthy respect for the need to embrace different ways of knowing, we could produce histories that would engage the public. However, we knew that we would be swimming against the tide of these pervasive assumptions about the dearth of a reading culture among Africans.
Our project’s major activities involved building a new digital storytelling platform (a WordPress plugin) that adapts the functions of the popular Curatescape framework to needs in the developing world. We developed the platform in close conversation with research partners in Department of History and Archeology at Maseno University near Kisumu, the third-largest city in Kenya, and our students and theirs collaborated in curating place-based stories that appear on a website running this plugin. Named MaCleKi, an abbreviation combining Maseno, Cleveland, and Kisumu, the project offers distinctive humanities content about a city that previously had little such material available online.
This essay highlights our sense of the project’s status in the public mind and imagination now, four years since it was launched. We are interested in how the project has been received by our research partners and their colleagues at Maseno University, as well as the public in and around Kisumu and in Kenya as a whole. Given the popular assumptions about the dearth of a reading culture and paucity of interest among Africans in their history, to what extent has the public expressed interest and participated in the project documenting the history of people, events, places, and sites in and around Maseno and Kisumu? Since the project’s inception, we have developed and conducted seven collaborative, team-taught courses over seven semesters with CSU and Maseno students; curated more than 40 well-researched digital essays about places in and around Kisumu on the Curatescape-based MaCleKi website.What have been the views and attitudes of our research partners at Maseno University, and the public in and around Kisumu, toward the project? Have those views and attitudes changed over time in relation to the project, and if so, why and how? How have we at Cleveland State University (CSU) engaged with our Maseno research partners, and how have we involved the public in identifying common research interests, collecting and analyzing research materials, and telling their own stories—stories about their lives, heroes and heroines, events, places, sites, and locations dear to them? How has our engagement with our research partners and the Kenyan public helped in curating stories about important people, events, and places, especially those in danger of fading from memory or literally disappearing for reasons such as encroachment from modern developmental projects? After four years of research and writing, what is the level of public involvement and participation in the project? These are important questions for those seeking to engage in projects involving collaborative teaching, learning, and research in the digital age, while dispelling persistent, gloomy assumptions about the lack of a reading culture and interest among the ordinary African market woman and herdsman in their history.
Our collaboration with the History and Archeology Department at Maseno University started in fall 2014 with a research project titled “Curating Kisumu” and continued in fall 2017 under the name “Curating East Africa.” Aware of the cellphone revolution that was emerging in Africa beginning in the 1990s, and of how avant-garde social justice activists and entrepreneurs were using mobile devices to create digital programs such as Ushahidi and M-Pesa to provide critical services to the African masses, we decided to explore the possibility that students and faculty at CSU and Maseno might use cellphones to teach and learn together in real time, showcasing how mobile devices could be used at different institutions separated by time and distance to share knowledge, conduct research, and write and disseminate stories about places, people, and events that were either unknown or under threat of disappearing, thus salvaging knowledge about these subjects for posterity. In short, we were trying to examine how the cellphone could be used to promote knowledge sharing in and outside the classroom.
Although our project has not been without substantial challenges over the last four years, it has gained traction and acceptance in and around the Maseno University community, Kisumu, and Kenya as a whole. The project is successfully engaging students and the public in the classroom and online, one story at a time, winning their confidence and, in some cases, enthusiastic support. Since the project’s inception, we have developed and conducted seven collaborative, team-taught courses over seven semesters with CSU and Maseno students; curated more than 40 well-researched digital essays about places in and around Kisumu on the Curatescape-based MaCleKi website; and extended the project to social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to engage the public about their history in the online venues where they are accustomed to gravitating. More importantly, we successfully investigated and explored the feasibility and practicality of conducting research and sharing knowledge among students and faculty at universities located in different parts of the world and endowed with different levels of access to resources while at the same engaging the public in the writing of their history in the digital age.
The success of the project has been particularly remarkable in one area—that of community outreach and public engagement. The public in and around Maseno and Kisumu has not only participated actively in providing materials that were used by our students in writing the essays that appeared on MaCleKi, they have also been actively involved in visiting and reading the essays, and, in some cases, commenting on these essays on the project’s associated social media platforms. This is an indication of the public interest that the project’s essays have generated. One measure of this interest is the fact that more than 75 percent of the audiences for both MaCleKi and the @curatingkisumu Twitter feed are from Kenya and the other countries in the East African Community (EAC). The website’s essays about places, people, and events in and around Maseno and Kisumu have been viewed many thousands of times and received praise, criticism, and comments from many viewers and readers, underlining the critical role they play in sparking the public imagination and involving the public in telling their history.
After coming across a story about Maseno University on MaCleKi, a Ms. Sally Luta declared, “Fresher….have gotten a clue of where am going to get my degree.”5Sally Luta (@sallyluta), comment on “The Only University on the Equator,” MaCleKi, http://macleki.org/stories/the-only-university-on-the-equator/#comment-3308152361 (accessed 24 June 2018). When Ms. Judy Ogada read various stories on Maseno and Kisumu on our Twitter page, she decided to inform “anybody who want [sic] to know more about the history of #Kisumu should follow @curatingkisumu and @JamesAlnOLOO.”6Judy Ogaga, @Judy_Ogaga, Twitter, April 27, 2018, https://twitter.com/judy_ogaga/status/989885584343752705 (accessed June 24, 2018). But, as expected, not all the commentaries and observations have been effusive and positive. Some are critical but constructive in their criticism. After reading the story on “Ambrose Ofafa Memorial Building in Kisumu,” one reader by the moniker “Afrocool” and Twitter handle @goandshop responded to the story by arguing, “check back on your history. Ofafa was assassinated by Mau Mau terrorists over his advocacy for peaceful non-violence in the clamor for independence.” Another reader going by the handle “Mazzdark” came across the essay titled “Land Alienation and Its Impact in Kisumu Miwani Sugar Company and the Creation of Kabonyo Settlement Scheme” on MaCleKi and wrote back complaining that “you havent’ [sic] brought out how the alienation impacted Kisumu, also what patterns of allocation were used in Kabonyo Settllement Scheme (people from where?), did the alloteess [sic] sell lands later?”7Mazzdark (@mazzdark), comment on “Land Alienation and Its Impact in Kisumu,” MaCleKi, http://macleki.org/stories/land-alienation-and-its-impact-in-kisumu/#comment-3049696171 (accessed June 24, 2018). Another reader by the name “simhedge” read the story titled “The Kenya-Uganda Railway: How the Railroad Shaped the Development of Kenya” on MaCleKi and responded: “ ‘the British defeat Germany in east Africa and allowed England’ – Britain and England are not synonyms and should not be used interchangeable. In this article, Britain should be used.”8Simhedge (@disqus_nOh7JVcwhM), comment on “The Kenya-Uganda Railway,” MaCleKi, http://macleki.org/stories/the-kenya-uganda-railway/#comment-3313571959 (accessed June 24, 2018). These are just a few snapshots of the public engaging with writers and other readers on MaCleKi on various aspects of the history of Maseno and Kisumu. It is live history. It is the direction that public history is taking in the digital age. We believe that the public’s participation in this project calls into question the common assumptions about Africans lacking a reading culture and interest in their history.
Indeed, since the project began in 2014, the public in Maseno and Kisumu have actively collaborated with students at CSU and Maseno University in providing them with research materials that have led to the publication of essays on various topics on the history of Maseno and Kisumu. This (fall 2018) semester, a new cohort of students is working on additional topics. When completed and posted, this will potentially bring the total number of essays on Kisumu available on MaCleKi to 55. These essays deal with all aspects of the history of Kisumu, ranging from the coming of colonialism to Kisumu to infrastructure development, Western schools and the introduction of Western education in the region, land problems and the emergence of slums, racism, religion, leadership, soil erosion and environmental degradation, livestock keeping and fishing, entertainment, and war and politics. The essays were well received by the general public, underlining the general interest of ordinary Africans in their history.
Some of the essays have even reached the attention of some of the most eminent scholars and historians of Africa today, including the renowned Prof. Bethwell Allan Ogot, one of the most accomplished historians from and of Kenya, based in Kisumu. One of the essays, “Miracle Healers in Kisumu: Comparing Father Juma Pesa of Kisumu, and Pastor Lesego Daniel of South Africa,” was even quoted in Prof. Ogot’s book Kisumu 1901–2001: From an Inland Port to First Millennium City.9Bethwell A. Ogot, Kisumu 1901–2001: From an Inland Port to First Millennium City (Kisumu: Anyange Press Ltd., 2016). The project has also started growing beyond Maseno University, drawing other interested stakeholders and community partners. It has started receiving support and commitment from various officials working in the Kisumu County government, Kisumu Museum, Kisumu Provincial Administration, and Kisumu City Council, as well as from various school principals and teachers, prominent religious leaders, and other stakeholders in and around the region. The Kisumu Museum, a branch of the National Museums of Kenya, for example, has become very keen on using our project to extend the reach of their exhibits into the broader community in and around Kisumu. The museum has also become a direct participant in the project, and, during the spring 2018 semester, provided our students with research materials and guidance, which proved especially helpful when a national public university strike interrupted the semester at Maseno University.
We conclude where we began. What can we say about our experience working with our research partners at Maseno University, the community in Maseno and Kisumu at large, and generally running and managing the research project? What did we learn about our partners’ general demeanor and attitude to collaborative research projects such as ours? Did we find our research partners, their students, and the general public lazy, poor, and disinterested in reading and documenting their history, as most critics would have us believe? How are collaborative projects such as this one viewed by the public, and what kinds of problems should researchers like us anticipate and prepare for in the course of running research projects? Our response to these questions is not necessarily simple.
We encountered and dealt with many challenges during the last four years. We faced structural problems emanating from the two universities having different programs and calendars; the difficulty of communicating across a seven-time-zone divide; managing diverse expectations of partners and participants; and even unexpected disruptions from political unrest and university strikes in Kenya.10The most critical issue we discovered is how to make projects sustainable once they are taken over by local institutions and the public around them. Once a project is taken over by a local institution, how does it maintain public participation and involvement? This is the most critical question. Our research partners have assured us that they are interested in maintaining and running the project, but it seems to us that the project’s continuation may require our involvement, even if it is only to stay on top of renewing the domain annually, not to mention our continued hosting (which would cost them approximately US$125 annually, and would be more problematic in a department that does not even give faculty Wi-Fi or an office computer or printer).The essays were well received by the general public, underlining the general interest of ordinary Africans in their history. We know that this project is worthwhile, but we think that the key for the foreseeable future is partnerships of the sort we are doing. The Kenyan university provides local expertise and community engagement, and the US university provides technological and logistical support and access to scholarly publications. Equally important is for the collaborating partners to consider embracing other organizations and even expanding the project beyond their immediate vicinities to involve other organizations in and around Kisumu, and perhaps other parts of Kenya and other countries in East Africa, to make the project more viable and sustainable. We must think in terms of exploring the history of other themes that have not been covered or have only been covered briefly or partially, such as medicine and healthcare and the environment. Finally, it is important to explore how to safeguard the project, or any other project such as this, from the ravages of constant labor unrest and never-ending political clashes that can prevent it from reaching its full potential. What we did not find was an African public too poor, too lazy, and too illiterate to be interested in reading, history, and participating in projects such as ours. Although it is true that many people in Africa are poor and lack adequate access to resources that most people in the West take for granted, our experience is that this did not affect people’s disposition or interest in their history. It may have affected their ability to access or travel to where relevant historical materials are held, but we did not see it affecting their attitudes, interests, or dispositions.
As a result of witnessing students and members of the public voluntarily, and by their own initiative, visit MaCleKi and the social media channels associated with our research project, we believe we can safely conclude that Africans are always going to be interested in their surroundings, their culture, and their history, and in engaging in debates about such issues just like everybody else. While poverty and illiteracy pose real challenges to the African people, these are not unique to Africans. Our hope is that digital humanities platforms and processes such as the one we have developed with our Kenyan partners will continue to support and encourage a commitment to sharing connections between African pasts and presents.