Teach Your Children To Love Books

I did not grow up loving books, despite the fact that my folks are teachers. I remember when I was beaten senseless for being accused of stealing a Bill Cosby novel which father had borrowed a rich kid he tutored. Yes, those days, accusations earned you a beating. I’ve lived with the marks of that night to date, here on my left hand. He had promised to do something to me that I’d never forget for being a thief after it reached a point I had to lie that I stole the book because I saw myself dying and truly, his words are as alive in me today as they were on that night. The touch of a lit matchstick on my paraffin coated hand has refused to leave my mind.
But I did not steal that book. What would an eleven year old in 1999 at Huruma Estate do with what Bill Cosby had decided to hide in many pages? My taste for novels was killed before it was birthed.
There must have been something only adults could read in such books, so I grew up thinking. English was my worst spoken language. Not that I was any better in Luo either, but when father secured a job at Makini School and I followed him by the virtue that teachers’ children could study for free, I had to start learning how to speak this foreign language. Kids there were from a side of life I was not familiar with. I was too good in sheng’, and all of a sudden, had to master English and be fluent at it.
Father said that it would be safe for me to repeat class 5 since kids there were bright, far much more than my former schoolmates at St.Mary’s Donholm. I basically could not match their standards. And it was true. Nduta Kamau and Stephanie Pretty Chianda were my first friends. They were both good in Math and sat at the back. Perhaps it was due to their tallness, but I have never been tall. My new class teacher still deemed it fit to place me with them. I was the only boy at the ‘back bench’ with the strict Mkambe Pollyne Jara sitting at the far left corner. English was too swift on their tongues. That must have been my first culture shock. But I later met the Fred Musogas and Denet Odhiambos of that world who gave me an easier time fitting in.
Father had lots of academic books at home. For some reason they stored my lower classes books and a whole host of unimportant material which they never used. At class 7, he bought me Robert Kiyosaki’s Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands. I struggled to appreciate them because their English was unattractive and pale (read hard). I kept skipping pages because I’d yawn after every two paragraphs.
Miss Jean, my class 8 English teacher, gave me a hard time. She’d never award me with a mark above 18/40 in my compositions; always telling me to emulate Waithera’s or Abigail Arunga‘s writing. Jacob Ochola wrote well too. He’d rap in his speech with that broken front tooth and one day embarrassed me in an English lesson when he saw me looking up a word in the dictionary that the teacher had said whose meaning I did not know.
”You don’t know the meaning of protrude?” He blubbed.
God, I’ve never forgotten. Who says that in a 13-15 year olds class where girls existed; girls whose ears picked up everything, even a monkey’s footsteps? I had to pretend to be looking for another word to preserve my dignity. Dignity was important at adolescence. Plus my crush sat behind me so I could never afford to mix tenses whenever I answered questions, and to save myself much agony, I never used to raise my hand to ask any.
But I passed my KCPE English with a 91% score, beating many of those who were praised for good writing and speaking. Some of them used to copy excerpts from novels for their compositions but there was no way you could report that. I mean, Miss Jean would never believe you. It would be like performing a song about your jealousy for people to come laugh at, and dance while at it. But for me, jealousy did not match the respect I give stand up comedy. So I kept things to myself, like most pupils would.
When I joined St.Joseph’s Rapogi for my Form One, I was sure I wanted to become a Swahili professor. Grandfather died knowing that too. He’d keep reminding me to never give up on my quest to become one – to accomplish my dreams and be a great man. The first day we were taught Literature, my mind flipped. I was suddenly excited by the life this new subject had. We connected so fast it surprised me. Then one day teacher came with Okot P’Bitek’s ‘Song of Lawino’. Oh, that poem knocked me out. Literature was the new girl. I wanted her, badly.
That meant I had to start loving the library. Mostly I dreaded being in that quiet place with serious people writing notes with huge research books beside them. Yes, those large Physics and Chemistry textbooks were research books to me. I’d dose off often. But poetry books excited me. I’d read one for three hours and still wished preps would not end.
I was however expelled from that school in mid March, 2004, at Form Two. Unkind deeds I did. Blame it on the demons that visited me during that period. There were many things I was looking for; one of them security, and another, satisfaction. Just that I chose the wrong path in my search. It surprised people. I had always been that harmless quiet omera.
Reading at home was impossible. I could not teach myself about mitochondria and all the mayhem of working with pie in Math. So I’d mostly listen to Metro FM and read lots of Mwende Mwinzi’s articles in the Sunday Nation. I think that woman inspired me to want to become a journalist, and some sort of wordsmith. I wish life could gift me with meeting her even just for a handshake. I had began writing music a year before and my mentor, Jeff Omenda (now deceased), who was the Sanitation Prefect at my former school, kept telling me that I wrote good music. Forget that it was majorly about girls. I still remember the tune of the chorus of my first song ‘Mamanzi’ – sheng’ for ‘girls’.
In June that year, I began writing poems, but still did not like books. I felt they were exhausting. I’d read newspapers cover to cover, but not books. Things gradually changed when I was at Bugema Adventist Secondary School for my A Level education. I met Maya Angelou in the school library. Her poetry was bewitching. It gave me the zeal to search for more material. But it was not until around 2012 that I took book reading seriously. I had been writing prose and poetry already but always felt like there were many things I missed, and it seemed to me like books had them. McCrimmon’s ‘Writing With a Purpose’ was a good starting point. Then followed a string of other incredible texts after.
I realized that there is a life in books you will never experience anywhere else. How I wished that someone would have introduced me to them at an earlier stage and do it well – not as though I was being forced into reading. I still have so many books to read. So many. I did come to understand that reading is the heart of writing.
Today. we do not have so many young people who are readers. At least where I come from. It’s hard to love something whose meaning and usefulness nobody has ever explained to you. But even so, we read to live. It’s the mentality that counts – the same we should ingrain in our children. I may not love any book I come across. I still dislike novels, but there is something for everyone out there. Finding a good book is like finding love. Be ready for the adventure.

Buy a book today.


Post Author: Eric Onyango Otieno

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