Ukombozi Library: Onward with People’s Struggles for Liberation

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Most libraries in Kenya, whether public or private, operate within rules of the prevailing capitalist system. As such, they collect, store and disseminate information from the point of view of capitalism. No alternative information about any alternative systems, especially socialism, are entertained. This is true today as much as it was at the time of independence in 1963. The significance of Ukombozi Library should be seen in this historical perspective.

Soon after independence, political dissent was criminalized and outlawed in Kenya by the KANU governments under Presidents Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel arap Moi. Books and publications that were considered by the totalitarian regimes to be arming the people with images of an alternative society and fueling the struggles for genuine and meaningful independence were prohibited. Many activists engaged in the struggles for social justice and democracy were detained, imprisoned, tortured, driven into exile and underground. Many others were silenced permanently through murders, assassinations and massacres. Even information about these atrocities was banned. And yet, in spite of this draconian censorship, progressive books and publications were read and shared in secret. Organised underground resistance began to take root and set up their own underground libraries and archives.

This prevailed until people’s struggles against authoritarian rule won the battle for multi – party politics in the country in the late 1990s.

Ukombozi Library which owes much to the underground library set up by Mwakenya-December Twelve Movement was established in 2017 by progressive information and social justice activists to bring to light thousands of books, publications and other memorabilia archives from the underground MK-DTM Library which had inspired and fueled the struggles for social justice and democracy in Kenya. The initial collection of over 1,000 books and publications housed in the library are the rare books and publications that were read and shared by activists associated with underground liberation movements in Kenya.

Browsing through these publications currently at the Library, they bring convoluted feelings of fury and bitterness to a regime that was afraid of itself, more than the patriotic shadows of resistance they ruffled. This was such a paranoid regime that swooped on anyone suspected of patriotic stirrings, even in their silence and dreams. The Government arrested, tortured, imprisoned, detained, assassinated or forced into exile hundreds who had no serious revolutionary stirrings on grounds no other than suspicion of their acquaintance with these publications or their association with some patriotic individuals. These books still ignite strong feelings of resistance, especially when they are passed on in quick succession among social justice activists in this Library. The liberating power of information flows through the fingers.

The Beginnings

These books, and many other progressive publications from the past and present, physical and in soft copies, made up the initial collection at Ukombozi Library. These were the books that were passed and read in whispers, yet germinated into reasoned awakenings that terrified the dictatorship. The initial collection which formed the basis of Ukombozi Library was set up and managed by the late Nazmi Durrani, a member of DTM. Come to think of it, the portrait of Nazmi Durrani should be amongst the portraits in permanent exhibition at the library together with those of Dedan Kimathi, Markhan Singh, Karimi Nduthu, Wangari Mathai, Winnie Mandela, Josina Samora Machel, Thomas Sankara, Pio Gama Pinto, Phila Portia Ndwandwe, among others currently on show. But perhaps this might not be necessary as this was a collective effort by many other patriots, including his brother Shiraz Durrani, the founder of Vita Books. Vita Books is one of the founder members of Ukombozi Library and has contributed many publications and resources to the library, as has the Mau Mau Research Centre run by Prof Maina wa Kinyatti. Both, Vita Books and Mau Research Centre, share offices in the same building as Ukombozi Library.

Then, as is the story of initiatives set up in the collective spirit, Ukombozi Library has developed from a mere collection of books to become an activists learning space. It is used for reading, sharing ideas, discussing and reflecting on progressive and alternative information, societies, books and publications. It has become a space for arts and cultural activities, discussion session among other engagements by activists from the older and younger generation who are actively engaged in the struggles for social justice in Kenya and elsewhere in the region and globally. In other words, the library is evolving as a hub for the incubation, study, reflection and organizing of people’s struggles.

Library as catalyst for people’s struggles

Study cells, the spaces for reading and reflection of progressive literature, are here to stay. They have been around over the years. Progressives assemble to read, reflect and organize in the study cells. Study cells were largely associated with the days of underground resistance in Kenya. Author Maina wa Kinyatti, in his book, Mwakenya: The Unfinished Revolution, has illuminated on the discipline and secrecy of study cells during the underground days and the kind of literature that is required for research, analysis and discussion in study cells.

Times have changed. Organising is different. Study cells remain. Ukombozi study cells are open and accessible to many, being primarily meant to foster progressive reading and analysis of relevant publications and issues. Progressive literature is still relevant through the times, more books and publications have been added to the initial collection while others are being improved and produced at the library. Films and community engagements forums accentuate the depth and reach of books at the library. This brings more members to the library and interest from many quarters, scaling up progressive connections. This strengthens and ennobles various sites of struggle and movements, such as the social Justice Centres, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL) and other progressive awakenings. These sites of struggle and movements are linking up with other people’s struggles across the country. An alternative society continues to be imagined. What is imagined can be created. A just country for all will emerge from these struggles. Progeny of progressives will look back at this library as a catalyst of people’s struggles in the country and beyond the borders, years now, years ahead. Information knows no boundaries, Ukombozi Library has none. A library without walls, always open to all.

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