Not long ago, I was party to a minor squabble between two guards who work at the apartment complex where I live here in Nairobi. One of them had asked soon after I moved in two years ago whether she could have my newspapers when I’d finished with them, and I’d said yes. But recently, another guard had come around at odd hours asking if he could have the papers. At first I acquiesced, but after realizing that the first guard was annoyed, I suggested to the second one that maybe he could get the papers from his colleague after she’d finished.
Hardly the makings of World War III. But it gives you an idea of how highly prized newspapers still are here—at a time when they’re dying like flies in the U.S. Kenya may be one of the poorest countries in the world (it ranked 149th in per-capita GDP in 2006) but its nearly 40 million citizens, both middle-class and otherwise, have a seemingly unquenchable passion for print.
Why that’s so has something to do with culture. Patrick Quarcoo, a successful Ghanaian entrepreneur who started a new Kenyan newspaper, the Star, in 2007—yes, you read that right, a new daily newspaper—says it was his grandmother who taught him about the significance of print in an African context. “She had no real formal education, but she always used to say in Pidgin English ‘Book no lies,’ ” he recalls. “She completely believed in the power of print to shape our destiny.”
That belief continues to be widespread today all over the continent. “People want to see it to believe it,” says Joe Otin, the media research and monitoring director at the Kenyan affiliate of Synovate, a media research and watchdog firm.
Each newspaper in Kenya is typically read by fourteen people, and those who can’t afford to buy a paper sometimes “rent” one. My neighborhood news vendor charges the equivalent of thirteen cents for thirty minutes with one of the major dailies, all of which are in English. That compares with fifty cents to buy one, a significant sum even to office workers earning $20 a day, and out of reach for the far more numerous casual workers who generally earn no more than $2.
The continuing popularity of newspapers undoubtedly also has something to do with the fact that most Kenyans can’t obsessively check the Internet. According to Otin, only 5 percent of Kenyans fifteen years old and above access the Internet daily, and only a minority of those have home computers. (Some 38 percent of households own a TV.) Still, I’m not so sure that greater Internet access will make the same differences here it did in the West. “Newspapers will not die here, definitely not,” says Daniel Kasajja Orubia, a twenty-eight-year-old manager who is among the small number of Kenyans who own a mobile phone with Internet access. He says he regularly uses it to check the BBC or other sites, but, he insists, “I’ll still be reading newspapers in twenty years.”
Orubia lives in Busia, where I went recently to meet some locals who gather every morning to read newspapers and talk about current affairs. I know a lot of journalists in Nairobi, and a lot of people who follow the news closely, but I wanted to see what role newspapers play in a more rural area. Busia, a small town on Kenya’s western border, serves as the commercial center for the district’s farmers as well as a stopping point for trucks on their way to Uganda and Rwanda. Its central market area includes everything from banana and arrowroot sellers to the Busia Wedlock Center, which offers a one-stop wedding service.
The market also boasts several news vendors, among them Simon Ondudin, whose “shop” consists of a large board on which he tacks the front pages of several daily newspapers and an assortment of magazines as an inducement to buy. Ondudin says he sells an average of 150 papers a day, a number that surprised me given that his business operates on a muddy patch of ground near stalls selling second-hand clothes and sandals made out of old tires.
The group I’d come to see meets every morning at the home of Stephen Otieno Obala, a Busia photographer. Obala, who says he fell in love with newspapers in the second grade, recalls, “There was a cartoon in Taifa Leo [a Swahili-language daily] that I read every day. From then until today I would choose reading over eating.”