>Barbara’s trip to Kenya

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Dear colleagues,

Here I am at last! It has been only a week since Rob and I arrived in Kenya and it already feels like I’ve been here forever. I had forgotten how time in Africa runs at its own pace: days are so full of life, excitement and colours that somehow they seem much longer.

We started our visits in Nairobi, where our first stop has been the Kenya National Library Service Headquarters, on the top of a green hill in the upper part of town. The new director, Irene, wasn’t there because she was bringing a new motorcycle mobile library upcountry. She is definitely on the move! There were Book Aid International’s cases lying everywhere, and librarians were busy processing the books to get them ready for readers in local branches all across the country.

The Nairobi Provincial Library besides the Headquarters has a beautiful children section with a room shaped like a theatre where on selected dates kids can go and listen to stories and watch movies, while parents are offered coffee. The librarian told us that parents say that since they started coming regularly to the library, kids have gone a long way in English and composition. Also, ‘they realize that they themselves have missed out a lot not having a library nearby when they were younger’.

There is also a VIP section with braille books and audiobooks. One of the librarians, James, who is totally blind and has worked at KNLS for 6 years, explained to us that they also have a mobile library scheme to bring Braille books to schools for totally blind and reach about 45 centres, mainly primary schools, but also secondary schools and individuals. Apparently the most popular books in Braille are fiction, Bibles, books on HIV/AIDS, on road safety, on youth problems and teenage books.

In the lawn in front of the library there are tents and tables where people can read in the light breeze and the librarians told me that students get there to study even at night after the library is closed. This is what I call keen students!

From Nairobi we headed off on the bumpy roads upcountry with the vehicles kindly offered by Kenya National Library Service. The provincial libraries we visited in Thika, Embu and Meru were always packed with students, so many that some had to sit at the little coloured tables in the kids’ sections when they couldn’t find a free spot elsewhere.

Early in the morning we started the visits to the schools that benefited from the Reading Tents Programme: kids were so excited to have visitors that the car was surrounded by hundred of smiley faces before we could even put one foot on the ground. When we interviewed them on the reading tents they attended last year, at first they were very shy in talking in front of the whole class, but after a while they started telling us so many stories they remembered that I could hardly keep track of them.

Most of the schools we visited had very few books to offer to their students; among those few, some were textbooks provided by the Government, some were old and ruined readers often unsuitable for primary school kids, and all were locked up in the head teachers’ offices, making it very intimidating for the kids to go ask to borrow them. No wonder the kids were so excited by the reading tents and the possibility to touch and play with how many colorful books they wanted!

Kids for Maua Primary School in Naivasha, for example, told us that they all enjoyed the tent very much – especially painting, drawing and a ‘potato and spoon race’ that the teachers organized for them. They said it was great to be able to choose from so many books on the floor of the tent. They told us that ever since that day, they read more than they used to! A little girl called Esther was particularly talkative and I was really moved when she told us how one book that she read at the reading tent has taught her to be nice with people suffering from HIV/AIDS. Kids are also very keen to read in English, and they asked us for books about Africa and other countries, such as Europe and even Mexico!

On Saturday, we headed south for Machakos to visit a reading tent that was running in a local school. It was the first time that I took part in a reading tent and I have to say that it was absolutely great to see the books that I normally see piled up in our warehouse coming to life in the little hands of about 250 grinning kids in their blue, green and burgundy uniforms! During the event, kids had some reading time when they could choose what to read from a pile of books casually laid on a table and it was a lot of fun to look at them going back to their desks carrying as many as they could and trying to look at them all at once. Then they drew, participated in reading and poetry and singing competitions and played out in the field. I will post a clip of a little guy reading aloud for Rob and another one of one of the songs the kids came up with for the music competitions. One of the teachers explained to us that a lot of the songs had a moral content such as the importance of literacy or HIV/AIDS awareness.

In the end, the children were fed with a hot meal and each of the 10 schools that participated was given a collection of 80 books to build a school library as they were trained to do before the reading tent took place.

On Sunday, after an unforgettable drive along breathtaking views of the Rift Valley, we reached the library at the Naivasha Maximum Security Prison. Having never visited a prison before, I was a bit nervous when we crossed the prison gate, but the most unexpected sight was waiting for me on the other side. It was a special day at the Prison: the new National Policy for HIV/AIDS was being launched and on the prison compound there was a huge ceremony with prestigious guests and kids singing for the families of the prison guards. We ended up having lunch among the entourage of the Vice President of Kenya!

In the afternoon we visited the library that is used by more of 600 inmates and many of the 200 staff. The library is part of the prison education centre which works like a traditional school, with a Principal and teachers, who are all inmates. We were able to spend a lot of time with a group of ten inmates who explained to us that Naivasha Maximum Security prison is the only penal institution in the country offering higher education and business education to inmates. There are also hands-on classes in carpentry, car-painting, metalwork etc which produce fantastic products that they showed to us.

Everybody was incredibly welcoming to us and keen to make us understand what a life changing opportunity the library had brought in their daily routine. The Chief Librarian, Joseck Anari, who is also an inmate and has been the librarian for two years, told us that most students at the school are undergoing rehabilitation through formal education, so they use the library to study for their examinations. He said that there are some very keen students who go there everyday. Bonaventure Mukhwana, the Principal, also told us that Book Aid International’s donations are “really helping eradicate illiteracy. Very many inmates arrive having very little education, but when they come in they are admitted here and they start learning”. BAI’s books are also used to stock the smaller libraries in the various buildings of the prison that host up to 400 prisoners each. Kenya National Library Service brings a box of new books to the prison library each month. Inmates asked us for English and fiction, maths and science books at secondary school level, and for economics and business studies textbooks. Vocational students read at the library too, and among others they need books on carpentry, tailoring, metalwork, and mechanics. There is also a great demand for materials on statistics, law, personnel management, IT, auditing, office administration, commerce and marketing. Bonaventure asked us for more accountancy textbooks – the only copies they have are Book Aid International donations.

We are now safely back in Nairobi, and ready to start the Fundraising Training for the East African Book Development Association members, that will keep us busy for the next three days. I will keep you posted!

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