Dar es Salaam's literary oasis: A dive into the city's book club culture

 Hekima Book Club

What you need to know:

  • From informal gatherings among friends to more structured clubs focused on personal growth, these groups offer diverse range of reading experiences

By Karen Chalamilla

In a bustling city where the most accessible communal spaces have often been nightclubs, local pubs, or sports clubs, book clubs are slowly making their way as one of the major ways Dar es Salaam residents choose to spend their free time.

Many are choosing to spend a few hours out of a weekend discussing a book with like-minded strangers, as seen by the rise in book clubs with a sustained and growing community of readers.

Founders of each established book club have cultivated a unique focus or pull factor to lure in certain readers, but the common motivation for starting one seems to be human connection.

Entesh Melaisho launched a book club in 2016 as a way to stay in touch with her friends.

“We had just finished school, and we thought a book club would be a great way to get together to do something we all enjoy,” she shares.

The club, which has since remained nameless, started off as close friends gathering in each other’s living rooms.

“It went like this: you would pick a book, and that would make you the host for that meeting. We would all come over, cook and eat together, and talk about the book,” Entesh explains.

Their first book pick was Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozie, which set the tone for the rest of the picks. “We mostly read fiction, I would say,” confirms Entesh.

What started as a small group in living rooms is now an almost 40-member book club. Entesh shares that there is a rotating door of members in the book club. So, while many of the older members might no longer be active participants, the newer ones are always keen to maintain the book club’s energy.

“We have had so many people come and go through the book club; sometimes new members feel more invested in it than old members,” she starts before adding, “I love that—it’s great that we don’t have a leader and everyone feels just as invested.”

Conversely, Umoja Book Club had a more formal start in 2018. Dorin Rugaiganisa started Umoja as a way to connect with fellow young professional women with a similar outlook on life and a love for reading.

Umoja’s focus is on women in their early or mid-level stages of their careers looking to grow professionally through dissecting nonfiction books. The book club picks range from self-help like Rhonda Byrne’s ‘The Secret’ to memoirs like ‘Finding Me’ by Viola Davis.

They have since included some fiction books in their weekly spotlights on their Instagram page, including ‘his only wife’ by Peace Adzo Medie, but most of their book picks remain nonfiction books whose material is relevant to their careers or personal development goals.

Dorin explains, “Growing up, I read a lot of fiction books but hadn't really spent much time with self-help and nonfiction. When I started the book club in 2018, there was a really great variety of self-help books, which made me realise that it was a genre I hadn't tapped into.”

The urge to explore books outside of their immediate comfort zone was one of the motivating factors for the founders of Hekima Book Club, too. When Elias Kasunga and Delicia Mwanyika started the book club in 2020, their first book club pick was ‘The Alchemist,’ by Paulo Coehlo.

Elias says, “The idea is that belonging to a book club will encourage you to read a book that would be unconventional to you.”

Hekima Book Club 2024 Book Calendar covers classics like ‘Sula’ by Toni Morrison and ‘Animal Farm’ by George Orwell, as well as contemporary releases like ‘Yellow Face’ by RF. Kuang and ‘Stay With Me’ by Ayobami Adebayo. You’ll even find some nonfiction in 'The Diary of a CEO' by Steve Bartlet.

All the mentioned book clubs do a great job of ensuring variety in their book picks in order to foster rich discussion in their meetings. But in all this variety, the lack of Swahili books or even books by Tanzanian authors in some book clubs is glaring. You have to wonder whether there is a missed opportunity to meaningfully engage with homegrown literature.

“We certainly do need to try to do better to read Swahili books,” says Entesh.

Book communities like Taswira Book Club, founded by Joan Kimirei, Asha Abdallah, and Sauda Simba in collaboration with Soma Book Cafe, have done a better job of incorporating books by Tanzanian authors into their reading programs.

They would collaborate with Tanzanian publisher Mkuki na Nyota to supply readers with the texts.

Hekima’s 2023 Book Calendar also featured a few Swahili books, like Shafi Adam Shafi, 'Vuta N’Kuvute' and 'Jinsi ya Kurudi Nyumbani' by Esther Karin Mngodo. In early 2022, they also hosted the book launch of the medical fiction ‘Fine Needle’ by medical practitioner and author Hamdan Hussein.

Social media has certainly helped popularise book clubs, with founders coupling their monthly meet-ups with online pages to build a digital community too.

For some members, virtual engagement is a low commitment, more affordable way to be part of the community, as some book clubs have a membership fee on top of having to purchase the book being discussed.

Elias is aware this may be a deterrent for some and has insisted there be no financial requirement to join Hekima. He says, “We wanted there to be the minimum requirements to join possible, and that is just to participate. Our goal is simply to inspire reading culture.”

On the impact Umoja Book Club has had on its community, Dorin says, “I have watched a lot of us grow from one space to another based on the principles we've gained from the books; I've really seen most of us just grow from strength to strength, especially career-wise.”

Umoja has also embraced activities beyond reading, like end-of-year socials, with community-building activities like arts and crafts.

So has Hekima. Elias mentions, “We do game nights as well now. And monthly walks just to encourage everyone to stay mentally and physically healthy.”

Entesh echoes both sentiments: that the community built over time has greatly benefited from reading but has also gone beyond discussing books. She explains that although it was not the initial goal, the book club has become a space for networking for all kinds of opportunities.

“Some people have even found romance—one of the founders found her husband in the book club,” she shares giddily.