AiW note: To celebrate the past thirty years of independent distributing and bookselling at African Books Collective (ABC), we are running a series highlighting the wonderful work of those who make up ABC. We will be talking to some of the publishers from the collective, gathering their Words on the Times, an AiW Q&A series that invites collective reflections on the way the COVID-19 pandemic has transformed our work and our communities.
ABC is an African owned, worldwide marketing and distribution outlet selling books from Africa. ABC’s wide-ranging catalogues promote big and small academic presses, children’s books publishers, NGO and writers’ organisations, and literary presses. They also run the website readafricanbooks.com which profiles the work of African publishers and books. We started the series with a Q&A and Words on the Times with ABC CEO, Justin Cox. You can read our other Words on the Times with ABC publishers uHlanga Press in South Africa and Langaa RPCIG in Cameroon.
Today, we talk with Shiraz Durrani and Kimani Waweru from Vita Books. Vita Books is an independent Kenyan publisher supporting people’s struggles to create societies based on the principles of equality and justice. It aims to redress working people’s lack of power over information, communication and the media which then restricts their access to ideas and experiences to resist imperialism, all under the dictum “Progressive Ideas Into Action.”
AiW: Could you tell us a bit about your work and the ways that the pandemic has affected your plans?
Shiraz Durrani and Kimani Waweru: Vita Books is an independent Kenyan publisher supporting people’s struggles to create societies based on the principles of equality and justice. It aims to redress working people’s lack of power over information, communication and the media which then restricts their access to ideas and experiences to resist imperialism. Vita Books strives to connect and unite progressive people everywhere in their battles for justice and equality for everyone. It was formed in 1986 in London by Kenyans forced to seek asylum by the oppressive government under President Daniel arap Moi. It publishes material with focus on people’s resistance to imperialism and their struggle for socialism.
Vita Books relocated to Kenya in 2017. In its first two years or so, it published a number of books and started the free on-line journal, The Kenya Socialist. It is one of the organisations that set up Ukombozi Library, in partnership with which it conducts events such as book launches and book and other forums to sensitise communities on social and political issues which are also the subject matter of its publications. As a publisher working with a library, we connect with a number of community groups whose libraries we helped by donating titles published by Vita Books.
Vita Books, like other publishers, has certainly been affected by Covid19 pandemic. In 2020, it published two books but due to the pandemic, it could not organise a book launch for either. This scenario has forced us to use other avenues to popularise our new releases such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram as well as emails. Vita Books does not have a main distributor in Kenya and relies on a number of bookshops which stock our material. The pandemic has made contacting them through personal visits difficult. At the same time, there has been a reduction overall in all book-related activities, including people buying books. This has affected our finances too.
It was just when we were getting settled in Nairobi that the pandemic started. While it did not stop our work, it certainly slowed us down. We rely on artists, designers, printers, bookshops and many others and most of them had to stop working or work reduced hours. Maintaining personal links with them, which is our preferred style, also had to stop. All this has delayed our publishing programme and a few titles that were to be published in 2020 had to be delayed to 2021.
In what ways are you working now that you weren’t before?
The changes in working hours have reduced our ‘office time’ and we had to turn to ‘home working’. Restrictions in travel to Kenya means that one of us based in London cannot travel to Nairobi. We thus rely entirely on electronic communications to plan, consult and carry on normal work.
We had started exploring Print On Demand (PoD) before the pandemic. The pandemic has speeded up the process and we have just acquired PoD equipment which will make us self-sufficient during this period. This will also reduce the need for a large amount of funds for print runs and storage space.
We are planning a launch the Kenya edition of Mahmood Mamdani’s Neither Settler Nor Native, published by Harvard University Press.
What have you found most supportive and/or heart lifting in this time?
The spirit of support and assistance among ordinary people is outstanding during these difficult times. Many have organised themselves without government assistance and mobilised resources which they use to distribute food and other essential commodities to the vulnerable people in the society. This is particularly true in poorer areas where police use repression and shoot-to-kill policies and the Government neglects to ensure people’s rights, including to life, as guaranteed by the Constitution and international laws.
People have continued to visit Vita Books and Ukombozi Library asking about our forthcoming books. The commitment of volunteers and others who work with us has also been remarkable. Far from giving up activities because of the fear of coronavirus and restrictions in everything, they have responded with a ‘can do’ attitude and have continued to work behind the scene but taking precautions at the same time. We are currently working on a number of titles which should be out early next year. This would not have been possible without the commitment of our book community and volunteers.
How can our blog communities support you?
Our main customers are in Kenya so if your blog reaches Kenya, then they can help us connect better with local schools, Universities, community groups, libraries and bookshops and publicise our books. The African Books Collective does this on a world-wide basis, but the blog communities can publicise their role in distributing our books. And of course, everyone can buy our books and recommend them to their libraries and institutions to add them on their reading lists. Black Lives Matter and so do Black Books!
On a broader level, they can support small publishers and the book trade generally by campaigning for African government to protect free flow of information and encourage local publishers by including their books in school curricula. They can support international campaigns of making book provision in libraries a national priority by ensuring adequate funding for them.
Shiraz Durrani is a British-Kenyan library science professional noted for his writings on the social and political dimensions of information and librarianship. He has written many articles on colonialism and imperialism in Kenya. His books include Kenya’s War of Independence: Mau Mau and its Legacy of Resistance to Colonialism and Imperialism, 1948-1990 (2018, Vita Books). Some of his other publications are listed at: https://durranishiraz.academia.edu/research. Shiraz was a founder member of Vita Books in exile in London in 1986.
Kimani Waweru manages Vita Books and coordinates Ukombozi Library.
Follow Vita Books via their Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, and buy their books either through African Books Collective or in Nairobi from BookStop (Yaya Centre), Chania Bookshop (Moi Avenue), and Prestige Bookshop (Mama Ngina Street).
To find out more about Vita Books, read ABC’s ‘Publisher Profile’ with publishers Shiraz Durrani and Kimani Waweru.
Make sure to check in each Friday for our Words on the Times with other ABC-distributed publishers!