For a new library in Kenya’s largest slum: 3,800 books, and hope

Story, Photos and Video by Ron Reason

[The following is a compilation of earlier posts from my now archived travel blog, and a variation of an article published in The Standard newspaper of Nairobi. It has been updated for study by my class at the University of Montana.]

Part 1: What if you only had 1/3 of a book to read? The middle third? 

The scene: Sunday morning in a “drinking den” (really, just a small private residence, a shack) in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya. The locals are sharing changaa, the traditional homemade liquor of the Luo people, which I later read in the local paper can cause blindness if drunk to excess. They entertain me, another in what must be an ongoing parade of interlopers from the West, popping by to inquire about the hardships of life here, only to jet back to comfort, an album of photos like these in hand of their first impressions of this exotic place:

It’s around the time of the 2008 election, so an American, from Chicago, gets asked a lot about Obama. I repeat that I am just a casual visitor, interested in culture and photography, taking a detour from some other work I have in the region, helping The Standard newspaper rethink and renew. Yet many believe I must be with an NGO and surely I am in a position to help. They repeatedly outline their hardships, and ask what I know of any hope that may be in store? Food, safety, money, jobs. Of course, some have no problem extending a hand stretched out for cash.

It’s quite a collection, this odd crew of visitors in a ramshackle hut. A child who might be 2 years old sleeps on the mattress next to one of the residents. Another boy, about 8, refills the liquor jug when needed, when mom (the proprietress) is otherwise busy.

An unexpected question detours the conversation and Sunday morning changaa: “Do you like to read?”

Why, yes, I reply, not expecting the exchange to take any sort of academic turn. The man of about 50 continues: “What do you like? Do you like Ludlum?” With that, he tosses at me Robert Ludlum’s The Parsifal Mosaic.

I do like to read, I reply. But I’m more curious about the state of the book than its title – it’s torn into thirds, and the reading fanatic has tossed me the tattered middle segment.

“What’s this?” I ask.

“It’s Ludlum.”

“No, I get that. Why is it ripped into sections?”

Oh. That. “We have so few books here, we share like this. I just passed the first section on to my sister. I think my pastor has the final part and I will track him down when I am ready.”

I’m struck by a realization: Just because someone lacks opportunity doesn’t mean they lack education, or interest in learning. Indeed, this man reveals he gave college a try for two years, but lack of work opportunity has kept him down in the slum. Later conversations with my host, Reuters photographer and Kibera resident Noor Khamis, confirm that books can be terribly hard to come by, especially for kids.

Coming from a U.S. culture where books are so plentiful they go for pennies in thrift shops, or even get placed on curbs, I start to ponder (as fools with enthusiasm often do): What might be done to help?

Part 2: An ambitious (naive?) idea is born 

This round of Africa travels ends soon, and I am back in the States. At local resale shops I see shelves literally overflowing with books … “12 for $1, today ONLY.” I see them tossed out in the rain in an alley near my office. Friends and neighbors ask if anyone wants to go through their unneeded books before they are taken to the curb. A local weekly newspaper hosts a book swap. All of it gets me thinking: Why not haul some books back on my next trip abroad, arrange a return visit to Kibera? I put out a call to friends, connections in the newspaper industry who deal with book reviews. Who has any books they no longer need?

 [Related: More on my work in Kenya and elsewhere in Africa.

The idea for what is to become The Hope Library is born. Within a month I have mountains of books in my living room in Chicago. It’s a little overwhelming. A number of the titles just offered no compelling reason to be hauled overseas: “Susanne Somers’ Guide to Thinner Thighs,” to start of the long list. I narrowed them down to categories I knew, from longer conversations with Kibera residents, were most in need: Biographies of African leaders. Stories of strong women. Children’s books and picture books. Books on community organization, personal empowerment, family and relationships. Poetry, art and science.

A shock arrives when I get quotes for shipping boxes to Africa. Whopper price tags from USPS, FedEx and others. The cost to ship just one small but heavy box of books: almost $700. A dead end for my grand plan? I can check one, maybe two suitcases on my next flight abroad, but that won’t create a dent in the piles of donated books mounting in my home, nor the need in the slum.

A friend who flies for a major airline heard my plight, and shared that staffers enjoyed a 75% discount for international shipping from FedEx. Bingo. We round up some donations to assist with the costs, I accompany her to the local FedEx office, and we ship about 10 boxes to my contacts there. I pack another few massive suitcases (also donated) to check on the plane for my next trip.

Part 3: From across the country, unexpected offers of help 

A few months later, I return to Kenya for work with my client, a major media company whose storytelling skill sets I’ve been asked to modernize, more books in tow in my baggage. I’m able to make a weekend visit to Kibera, and check in with my connections there (primarily a local youth group, but also members of the congregation of St. George Orthodox Church, who offered to temporarily house the books).

To my astonishment, the shipped books have arrived, are being well used, and one of the shepherds of the project, Osir Caleb, leader of the Nicofeli Youth and Kids Group and sort of my “handler,” shares a hand-written ledger with the title, author and topic of each book, and a notation of who has checked it out. He introduces me to the elderly man in charge of the ledger, and tells me he has been rejuvenated by the task. He proudly shows me his penmanship.

The scenes of the books being registered, stored and shared are inspiring and a little overwhelming:

For better or worse, these images push me to move forward. I visit separately in the slum with a collective of self-taught artists, and decide to procure some of their work to take back to the States and exhibit at a part-time art gallery I conduct from my office. Part of the proceeds benefit the collective, for training programs and the purchase of their studio, while part goes to the library fund. I sell some of my photos from Africa as well. Exhibit patrons donate additional funds, and books. So many books.

Word spreads among my Facebook friends and others. Chicago graphic design firm Good Night TV asks how they can help, and they design a logo and print 100 t-shirts for the Nicofeli Tigers soccer team. Another charity donates a big shipment of soccer balls. Others supply me with clothing and stuffed toys, though my primary desire is to keep adding to the collection of books.

In the biggest gesture of support to come my way, my efforts are discovered by American Friends of Kenya (AFK), who contact me after reading some posts on my now archived travel blog. They reveal that they are doing some work in the very same corner of Kibera, and as fate would have it, they are planning a cargo container shipment to Mombasa, with train connection to Kibera, later in the year. Would I like to piggy back any boxes on that shipment? If I could get the books or other materials to their headquarters in Connecticut, and donate just a small bit to help with shipping tariffs, I am welcome to join in on their fun. (I ended up shipping them another 22 boxes of books, at the very affordable U.S. postal service rate of about $25 a box.) I seize the chance.

Six months later, I return to Kibera. I see the boxes have arrived (miracle of miracles!) and the jerseys, soccer balls and more and more books are shared and enjoyed:

Osir, the champion of Nicofeli (named for his daughters, Nicole and Felicia), beams as he shows me the certification he has received from Kenya’s Ministry of Gender, Sports, Culture, and Social Services. A group of women church leaders host a community supper in my honor, and I’m a little embarrassed, but tickled by the fruits of a lot of labor and expense by a variety of people.

My interview with one of the young patrons of the library provide testimony to its value. In the video at the top of this page, Winnie Linet Atieno, 10, from the Kianda district of Kibera, tells of some favorite recent reads: a “classics illustrated” version of Moby Dick, and “Angel in the Waters,” wherein she learned, with delight, where babies come from. (I specifically recall sorting and packing that book back in the Midwest, and my mind races with how its revelations may affect her.)

I leave from what must be my fifth or sixth visit, a little overwhelmed and exhausted, but also carrying some doubts about infrastructure. Was this the right thing to do, through the right channels?

Part 4: Whither all these books? (Or: When does this ever end?) 

It’s a question anyone who has tried to help in Africa, on a limited or individual basis, must wrangle with:

Is it proper, or helpful, for one person to try to make a difference? Would it be better to donate to a larger agency, or volunteer with a larger group?

There are no clear answers. Osir often warned me of the tenuous state of the project, usually related to housing the books. The pastor of the church which initially stored the books was asking him for shakedowns (“tithing,” he called it) and by extension, Osir was requesting cash from me. After a point, saying no is hard, but essential. Everyone in Africa seems out to line his own pockets, along with every request for legitimate help. Even my friends with AFK warned that I should take caution, I might never know what might become of the books or other donated materials. I wonder, only half in jest: What’s the worst that can happen? Might the books end up in the slum’s vast Toy Market (sort of a flea market/bazaar)? Who knows, might their pages end up being torn out and used to line the residents’ huts for insulation?

Soon thereafter came an end to my work with Standard Group (which financed my travels abroad and allowed me time to pursue these side projects in the slums, knowing that it bettered my understanding of Kenyan culture, and thus, my work with them). I was no longer able to visit the slum in person to check on things, so I had to trust that Osir and others would continue to shepherd the project.

A year or so later, I received confirmation (and comfort): Osir had sought assistance from the nearby Japanese Embassy, who had toured our do-it-yourself library collection, seen the ledgers chronicling who had checked out what, witnessed the books in use by classes and after-school programs, and wanted on board. They ended up financing the construction of a bio-facility, with sanitation and water resources, permanent shelves for the books, and meeting space for youth club events.

While the use of the books as insulation wouldn’t have been entirely a loss, it would not have been the outcome I (or many other donors) would have wanted. This assurance of their permanent home was a fitting punctuation for this project of several years. When I return to Africa, might I take more books? Sure. And it will be great to see those beaming kids’ faces again.

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