Tea Tales Reading Club: Building a Sustainable Reading Ecosystem in the Swahili Coast.

It has been long propagated, erroneously I may add, that people from the Coast do not read. In a previous article, we explained our opinion, one of the differences in approach towards reading between two diverse spaces- the Kenyan Coast and Nairobi, and two on the paradigm shift in the former’s reading attitudes. To a large extent, I feel this stereotype has played into (some) our minds as well, in the process leading to a general aversion to book production and consumption. This, of course, does not apply across the board; it is the people who refuse to be culpably nonobservant, and those who refuse play into or be influenced by this stereotype who are at the forefront of building a reading culture in the coast.

Tea Tales Reading Club- an initiative by Shufaa Yakut, an artistic bent of mind and communications Director at SwahiliPot Hub, a proactive Art and Tech hub in Mombasa- had its second monthly meet this past Saturday. The first one, which I missed, was more of an introduction into what people are reading and the second one engaged the audience in an interactive discourse on creating reading habits. Its beginnings are rather fascinating, stemming from the initiator’s need to be held accountable for her reading habits, creating a persistent appetency to replicate the same to the community of readers around her. The club encourages readers to recommend and swap books, hence ensuring that the conversations are carried on to the next meet-up. 

Meetings of this nature are not only an important addition to the many efforts aimed at upping the art and literary scene at the coast, but they serve as a meeting point of ideas, each influencing the other in a positive tune. The ripple effects of these meet-ups can be both immediate and long-term, and while the immediacy of this is a keener, collective approach to reading, the long-term effect can range from a holistic re-evaluation of our reading habits to a sustainable approach to book production to meet the growing demand for books in the Swahili coast.

Tea Tales Reading Club is also a multifaceted space, drawing readers beyond the coastal creative environment. It is inspiring to listen to a thirteen-year-old reader giving us his take on the books he has read and how much they altered his perspective to bullying in school, just as it is refreshing to hear a lady who just moved to Mombasa express her unrestrained joy at having stumbled, rather accidentally, on a reading community. One thing that we must appreciate about the contemporary creative space in the coast is its spontaneity, adaptive and commodious nature, borrowing heavily from the formative days of Swahili culture where the monsoon winds blew more than just thoughts, attitudes, language, religion and culture to the Swahili coast. The Waswahili thrived because they easily assimilated these elements and used the diversity to enrich their own way of life. The reading club pretty much does the same, and it is this open-minded structure that will see it flourish in the coming years because there is so much it can assimilate from other similar spaces outside the coast.

Suffice it to say that this is a welcome addition to the coastal creative economy and anyone who says that we, the people of the coast are not readers is at fault, and as our culture has taught us to be tolerant, we could be somewhat forgiving of this ignorance, mainly because collectively, we have come to appreciate that our attitudes and habits cannot be shaped by such stereotypical forebodings.

Besides, don’t we come from an envious heritage shaped by the poetic thoughts of Muyakka, Ahmed Nassir, MwanaKupona, Abdilatif Abdalla, among a whole lot of others?

While literature is undoubtedly universal, what I would love to see in the coming days at Tea Tales Reading Club and other such creative points is a more discursive approach for not only African works where we read Chika Unigwe, Teju Cole, Peter Kimani and others, but a huge portion of literature from the Swahili coast as well, with the likes of Abdurazak Gurnah, MG Vassanji, Adam Shafi, Kezilahabi, Faruouk Topan. Reading clubs in the coast should also contemplate re-reading the poetic works of Nabhany, Ahmed Nassir and Abdilatif by trying to comprehend the ecology that defined their works and why writings like Abdilatif’s ‘Je, Kenya Twendapi?’ are still relevant today as they were more than fifty years ago. In future, reading clubs should perhaps try and juxtapose these classical works with the likes of Salma Abdulatif’s upcoming poetry collection ‘Dried Rose Petals and Lavender Buds’ and interrogate the similarities in literature from the Swahili coast inherited across space and time. For all purposes and intent, discussing our own homegrown works is a huge step towards building a good reading and writing culture because the wisdom in these works (some of them didactic in nature) is timeless.

Photo Credit: AbdaLlah Mohamed (Heartstigraphy)


Abdilaif Abdalla, Abdulrazak Gurnah, Chika Unigwe, Farouk Topan, Muyakka bin Hajji, Mwanakupona, Nabhany Sheikh, Peter Kimani, Swahili coast, Teju Cole

Hekaya Initiative

Writing the East African Coast.

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