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“What do a crumbling, embalmed lion head and a photograph of Kenya’s first institutional hanging have in common?” by Syokau Mutonga

“What do a crumbling, embalmed lion head and a photograph of Kenya’s first institutional hanging have in common?” by Syokau Mutonga

Nostalgia x Libraries is an essay series developed as a prelude to Jalada 09: Nostalgia. It is in recognition of the important role libraries play as custodians of historical and contemporary texts and preservers of arts and culture. Each participating library is invited to select a book/artifact/other available in their space that speaks to some aspect of nostalgia or a unique heritage they’d like to showcase.

One of the most glaring fault lines in the construction of the Kenyan nation is not the absence of memory, but rather the deliberate institutionalisation of amnesia”.
~Dr. Joyce Nyairo
Kenya at 50: Trends, Identities and the Politics of Belonging

Before joining Book Bunk to head the Research & Inventory department, I always assumed that an ideal way to heal Kenya’s amnesia was through the archaeology of its material culture from the recent past. Yes, cultural heritage serves as a window into Kenya’s memory and tradition before the rupture of colonialism, but my work within the larger restoration of some of Nairobi’s public libraries⁠—including the iconic McMillan Memorial Library (MML)—has somewhat shifted and expanded the universe of my sentiments about this. 

Until late last year, there was no record of the number of books, items and artifacts that live in the MML. For nearly a year, I led the cataloguing and inventory process to create the library’s first-ever digital catalogue. It was a task that took 23 full-time interns and a whole lot of stickers! Encountering the artifacts housed in the space has led me to apply an archaeological lens to Kenya’s second oldest library as a way of curing my own amnesia.

I constantly find myself mired in saudade with a profound melancholic longing for an absent past that I cannot experience tangibly. So these artifacts have become a cathartic pathway of experiencing and embodying collective national memories that I was never a part of. I am undoing pasts and narratives that were imposed on me and my city by those who had the power to. 

This yearning for a past that I cannot always access as more than just a private, personal struggle is something that continuously echoes in the conversations I have with both the team as well as different users of the library.

Apart from their historical value, what do a crumbling, embalmed lion head and a photograph of Kenya’s first institutional hanging have in common? These objects have lived in the library for almost as long as it has existed—especially the photograph of the first hanging. The photo has become a starting point to unlocking the past; Who are the men in that photograph? What were they accused of? Did they willingly agree to their deaths? Who were their  family members? Where are they now?  

In many ways, as the space that these records are archived, the library is a space of memory where consciousness, history and memory interact. Consequently, every time we interact with the library, we are creating an ethnography of space where these assemblages (photograph, lion head, and many others) are giving access to a past that is sometimes painful to encounter, other times bewildering in its colonial certitude. 

As Kenya fights to have artifacts both tangible and intangible returned from museums and other collections in the West, making the memories housed at the library accessible to the public is one way that we are working to reverse a collective amnesia. It is important to build our own agency that recovers interrupted memories by accessing these objects. Through embodied experience, we can ask questions as well as contest, reinvent and reconcile personal and collective memories of Kenya’s recent past. This action is inspired by a core belief that memory is essential to our collective imagination.

Syokau Mutonga is an anthropologist whose responsibilities at Book Bunk Trust include ensuring the success of all research and inventory aspects. These include leading the data strands of Book Bunk’s work: data-gathering & presentation, creating a digital map of library collections in Nairobi and Kenya, overseeing the creation of a digital catalogue at all McMillan Memorial Library branches, weeding its current collection and curating an updated collection that is in tandem with the needs of  library users. She is passionate about exploring how intersectional approaches within cultural heritage reveal hidden networks & infrastructures that support or undermine collective life and sustainable social change. 

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