Muthoni Garland : Putting a book in every hand

  • PublishedJune 10, 2014

Muthoni Garland wants everyone in Kenya to read a book. Cultivating an active reading culture among Kenyans, especially those under 30, is a big part of her life’s mission. The co-founder of vibrant Kenyan publishing house, Storymoja, is also an editor, story teller and acclaimed author, with a book that has been short-listed for the prestigious Caine Prize, and another being used as a world literature text in the UK and American schools.  A great believer in the power of stories, Muthoni tells her own compelling one to EDNA GICOVI.

 Telling the story of a storyteller is no mean task. One is plagued with fears of not quite capturing the essence of the subject, who, being rather adept at storytelling, may not take it very kindly. These are my thoughts as I write Muthoni Garland’s story.

I first met her at a writing workshop hosted by Storymoja. There was an unmistakable authenticity in the way she interacted with, and responded to the attendees. She also seemed to possess that rare trait that makes a person able to relate to a five-year-old, a president, or the man on the street, with relative ease. When she spoke of being in her 50s and having grown-up children, I could sense many raised eyebrows in the room. Her athletic build and lively persona did not give most of us this impression. There was also never a dull moment during her sessions. It is this dynamism and evident passion for her vocation that make her such a prolific author and storyteller.

Muthoni has mixed memories of growing up at the turn of Kenya’s independence. She recalls being among four African children attending Beehive School in Nanyuki during her early years. Her parents had just bought a farm in Ndunduri, when it was still a settlement scheme in Nyandarua, and owing to lack of schools in the area at the time, sent their little girl to a boarding school where she could receive a sound education. Despite having attained independence, colonial attitudes were still rife in the then young Kenya, and little Muthoni suffered under the hands of several misguided individuals. She underwent a great deal of bullying and discrimination at Beehive before her parents caught on and pulled her out of the school.

“We took a bath every two days and two children would bathe at a go. If you were younger, you didn’t get the first, fresh bath water and had to wash with water that had been used by two or three children. The water would get so dirty that you couldn’t see underneath it,” she says making a face. Resentful at having to wash an African child, the lady responsible for bathing her would pinch her under the water, knowing that nobody could see her actions, and complain about what a fussy child Muthoni was when she cried. Owing to these nasty experiences, she cannot stand baths up to this day. “Only showers please!” she says grinning.

“Some of what happened to me stemmed from ignorance,” says Muthoni. This subjection to extensive bullying during her very first exposure to school and not being able to speak about or against it, at her young age, caused her to go mute. “At some point I had stopped speaking completely because of the trauma I had undergone. Throughout primary I never spoke much and was considered a very quiet child especially in comparison to my siblings,” she says.

She however attributes her love of words to her time at the school, which had a strong emphasis on language owing to the English system. “I got to learn many things that others were not exposed to, but what’s most important to me is that I cultivated a love for the English language that I might not otherwise have,” she says.

Muthoni attended a school in Nakuru for a few years before her parents moved to Nairobi when she was 11. After completing her primary education at Kilimani Primary School, she attended Maryhill Girls High School in Thika where she found her voice. Her time at the school gave her social confidence and she was involved in many extracurricular activities.

After her ‘A’ levels, she got an opportunity to study in America. Her first degree was in business administration. Taking up this course was a compromise reached by Muthoni and her parents after much negotiation. They wanted a ‘serious’ career choice like law or accountancy for their daughter, while she was interested in journalism. On completion, she went straight into a master’s degree in international relations, which she never finished.

Deciding she was not interested in a diplomatic life, she used her background in business and found a job doing market research for a seafood company in Boston where she lived at the time. She was back home three years later. Because it was a relatively young field in Kenya, Muthoni didn’t find research in Kenya very fascinating and decided to venture into advertising instead. At her previous market research job, she would make research presentations to advertising agencies, which had familiarized her with the advertising world.

She joined Ogilvy and Mather in the late 80s when advertising was still a very small industry in Kenya. She enjoyed her time there, rising to become a client service director and eventually being offered a managerial position, which she however turned down.

“Every journey you make in life, you learn a lot about yourself. I noticed that I would never accept a client whose products I disapproved of. Of course this is a big problem when you work for an ad agency,” she says.

She left advertising in 1995, a year she terms as the most traumatic in her life. “One of my brothers committed suicide at the age of 25, then we lost my father two months later. We later discovered that he was suffering from HIV.  My first marriage had also been breaking down and this was the year it ended,” she says of the tragic year. Her mother would also suffer from HIV though she lived with it for over a decade before finally succumbing in 2007.

Nonetheless, Muthoni picked up the pieces and went through a period of growth after that. She took her time to mend relationships that were important to her and spent the next couple of years thinking critically about what she wanted to do with her life. “Those years were tough but fulfilling. My two kids were growing up, and it’s great when you can have real conversations with your children. I also met my second husband and remarried during that period,” she says.

Unearthing a love for writing…

Her husband moved to Cairo in 1999 after landing a contract in Egypt and she joined him. Because of the move, she had to close down a thriving market research company that she had started, though this ultimately opened a greater door for her.  She ventured into writing while living in Egypt after taking an online fiction-writing course. She has never regretted it, as she immensely enjoys writing. Muthoni has always been an avid reader. She has also always loved telling stories and would make up many stories for her children, nieces and nephews. Over the years, many people urged her to write these stories. Her foray into writing started out as a bid to express herself and grew into something she wanted to do for the rest of her life. She submitted some of her work to different forums and won a BBC writing prize for writing a radio story, among other recognitions that built her writing momentum.

Storymoja was birthed in 2007 after her mother’s death. A collective of five writers, including Muthoni, came together with the dream of publishing contemporary East African writing of world-class standard. They first published 20,000 copies of Tracking the Scent of My Mother, one of Muthoni’s titles that had been short-listed for the 2006 Caine Prize, and Sunny Bindra’s Crown your Customer. Shortly after the books were published, the post-election violence broke out and by 2008 they had sold less than 300 books, a big blow to the young company.

“We thought of closing down because it seemed that we had failed,” says Muthoni, admitting that publishing 20,000 copies at a go was not a very smart move on their part.

Though some of the shareholders left after this, Muthoni was determined to stay on. She was concerned about the lack of a reading culture in Kenya. “The reason these books were not moving was not because they were bad books. Everyone who had read them liked them. It was because we do not have a reading culture and I felt that this had to change,” she says.

Storymoja, now six years old, has become a household name around Nairobi, especially in the literary circles. With a mission to “get a book in every hand”, the organisation endeavours to grow Kenya’s reading culture. To this end, Storymoja organises an annual international literary festival in Nairobi every September – The Story Moja Hay Festival – and also initiated the Start a Library campaign to stock books in schools that do not have libraries, as well as other reading-promotion campaigns. “We realized that only two percent of public primary schools have a library. I think that’s a crime against children,” says Muthoni.

According to her, a reading nation is a smarter nation and the fastest growing economies in the world have a strong reading culture. “In an age where knowledge is increasingly the currency for future success, reading empowers. It increases vocabulary, shows you how to develop proper sentences, stimulates creativity and exposes you to new ideas. Reading greatly improves your written and spoken communication.”

This year, the Kenya Institute of Curriculum Development (KICD) approved 26 of Storymoja’s books. By the end of 2013, Storymoja will have published, in print or digital versions, 21 books for adults and 74 children’s books. “Stories have sustained us as human beings,” says Muthoni, adding that she plans to continue writing and telling stories for the rest of her life.

Muthoni has authored two novellas– Halfway Between Nairobi and Dundori and Tracking the Scent of My Mother, a short story collection for adults, Helicopter Beetles, that’s available on Amazon.com as an e-book in addition to 18 children’s books, all published by Storymoja. Her children’s story, Kamau’s Finish is used as a world literature text in UK and American schools. She is also a storyteller and regularly presents in schools and at events.
 Marriage is a negotiation…

Muthoni has been married to Wallace Garland for the last 13 years. They have four grown-up children between them. Wallace previously worked with a British confectionery company, Cadbury, but has been involved in the charity field since his retirement. He now administers Precious Sisters, a charity that puts bright, needy girls through high school.

To Muthoni, marriage is a negotiation. “What I like about our marriage is the fact that we made a choice to be together for life. When we have problems, we have to work it out. We also strive to enjoy this journey that we are on,” she says, adding that having the right attitude towards marriage makes it incredibly rewarding.

“I love being married and enjoy having a partner to share my life with. I always make my husband laugh when I tell him that if he passes on, I will look for number three,” she says with a twinkle in her eye.

Being in an interracial marriage, Muthoni has encountered some of the complexes that surround such unions. She once had a stranger walk up to her just to inform her that she also happened to be married to a mzungu. “There are those who believe it’s a financial arrangement and that my husband must be very rich, and others who think that I am too proud to marry someone from my country,” she says.

Muthoni feels that a life partner should be someone that you truly feel at home with and can open up to, and also one who accepts you despite your shortcomings. “I couldn’t care less about tribe or race. I think it’s hard enough to meet someone that you have chemistry and a good understanding with, that if you start letting tribe or race become a barrier, you make it even harder for yourself,” she says.

Read to your children…

“Motherhood is there to make us more human,” she remarks about motherhood. She considers it the most fulfilling and challenging of all journeys one can take in life. Expectedly, her love for stories rubbed on to her children. However, for her, stories serve a much more important purpose than entertaining children.

“You can use a story to stimulate your child to talk about almost anything. I discovered as a young parent that if you spend your whole day at work and only spend time with your child in the evening, there isn’t enough time for them to relax enough to tell you everything that’s going on, but if you read a story that is about something that’s bothering them, they will talk like you can’t believe,” she says.

Muthoni encourages parents to read with their young children and inculcate in them a reading culture. “Thirty minutes of reading with a young child is a great investment in their future. And it’s great for bonding,” she says.

Children learn from what parents do more than from what parents say. Many parents agree that reading is important and good for you. Why don’t they make to time to read and ensure that their children see them read? Muthoni wonders. She says that parents should also not only wait to be instructed by schools on what books to buy for their children, but should go the extra mile and buy them books outside their curriculum. In addition, they should review the books their children read.

As we conclude, she says that it is essential to celebrate, encourage and nurture your child’s unique talent and view it as a gift from above, because you never know what it is about your child that will make them succeed in life.

Published in December 2013

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