A Children’s Library Where There Was None: Intern Post by Kelsey Edwards
As an Anthropology student I am told that my most common and demanding role will be acting as a broker between the donor culture and the receiving culture. The importance of a broker being that someone must be in the middle helping both cultures continuously compromise so that the most effective, sustainable and culturally appropriate solution can be found. I did not fully grasp the delicacy of this role until I embarked on a journey to implement two pilot children’s libraries in rural Kenya this last May. This expedition was my first test as a social-cultural anthropologist and although I knew I would learn many lessons, I was most surprised to find that rather than falling easily into this neutral broker position, I spent a lot of time trying to pull my head out of this jaded American viewpoint I have become so familiar with. It always sounded so easy on paper, but the complexity of taking on an entirely foreign perspective in order to be an effective and unbiased researcher was often very overwhelming.
However, like anything hard, when I look back on the experience I laugh at the cultural differences and obvious challenges we repeatedly faced and can only see the good that rose to the top. I went into this project with a twisted perspective, thinking that designing and implementing the “perfect” library system was my number one priority during those 30 days in Kenya. Although it took me awhile, I learned that regardless of the chaos and dysfunction it sometimes caused, my number one priority was to reach as many children as I could with books—even if this meant lending out over 200 books in one day. Some days the long-awaited “library system” took second place as I threw my hands in the air and let anyone and everyone pile into the library and scatter the books in every which way to find something that interested them. The library system we left in place was not perfect but it was a simple start that can and should be modified by both the users and the librarians over time.
The first library we launched was at Bahakwenu primary school. I am still in awe when I think of how quickly the students caught on to the “in-progress” library system I launched during those first few days in the village. A few moments still stick out to me.
The very first day as I sat on the cold library floor unpacking hundreds of beautiful picture books that had survived the exhausting journey from Utah, I was touched by the curiosity of the children who instantly surrounded me. Their faces glowed as every page was turned and their expressions were ever-changing with each new scene. I could not help but stare because there is something so fascinating about watching someone experience something we have always taken for granted. The crowd in the newly finished library quickly grew too large for me to control. Teachers came in to usher students out so I could finish unpacking the books but their curiosity took the better of them as well. I am still so moved when I picture those grown, educated men quietly reading the words of Dr. Seuss’ famous rhymes and sticking their fingers through the holes in the food eaten by Eric Carle’s “Very Hungry Caterpillar”. The excitement of the children was “cute” but this genuine intrigue shown by the teachers who had clearly never seen a picture book in their lives was truly heartbreaking for me. It makes me so happy to think that the lives of these students at Bahakwenu will be different in that way.
The first group I allowed to borrow books was the 1st 2nd and 3rd graders. Looking back on it, I don’t know why in the world I thought a trial run of close to 150 books and a bunch of 6, 7 and 8-yr-olds was a good idea. In fact as the day drew nearer to an end I really started questioning my decision and was dreading the thought of learning a lesson the hard way if none of these books were returned the following day. A big mistake I made was telling these students that the books were due back the next day during lunchtime. I had completely forgotten that the next day was not even a school day, it was the opening ceremonies (a big welcoming show put on for us by the villagers) and thus there was no lunchtime. The opening ceremonies are held at Bahakwenu and so I kept my fingers crossed that at least some of the children had remembered to bring their books back to school regardless of the confusion. Within five minutes of being there, three 1st graders came up to me and handed me their books. Before long, I was kneeling on dirt outside the library being encircled by children who were placing their books in my arms. Dust was flying in every which way as new students ran in and out of the circle, eager to show me that they had brought their book back as promised. For whatever reason, this moment hit me harder than any other. I fought back the tears as I watched their tiny, malnourished arms reach inside their ragged book bags to pull out their prized book—still in perfect condition.
As soon as the Bahakwenu library was opened chaos followed close behind. The excitement and newness that we assumed would wear off never did. Salim, Tsuma and Ngome were my three original helpers. Their willingness to step in and take over with little to no instruction was both impressive and relieving. The library was only open during lunchtime, and one day when my most stalwart 5th grade volunteer and friend was still at the desk, loyally checking in returned books from the day before it hit me that he had not left to eat lunch yet. With less than ten minutes before lunch was over, I asked Ngome if he had eaten. He said, “No, I want to help you. I want to work in the library.” I asked if he had eaten any food before he left for school this morning. He said, “No.” I asked if he would have food to eat when he goes home after school today. He said, “No”.
We often refer to these Kenyans we have lived with and grown to love as so unique and pure because they are untouched by the outside world. There is so much ugliness in the world that is surfaced when money becomes expendable, but I forget that there is also so much good to be found that is not an option without money. Reading a storybook filled with brightly colored pictures to their children will never be an option for any of the mothers I met in the village because they are barely able to keep food on the table. Becoming lost in the wonderful world of make-believe as they turn the pages of a cherished chapter book will never be an option for Tsuma or Kadzua or Ally or any of the other 6th grade boys I met at Nyeri primary school because they did not eat today and might not eat tomorrow.
Without access to a library (and here it must be understood that the word “access” is used loosely as they would walk 10+ miles without hesitation if they knew a library existed) mothers, fathers, teachers, and children in rural Kenya will never have the option of reading because they in no way can justify sacrificing the meager food that is keeping their families alive in order to buy a book. Thus you see our motivation behind the Taru community library which was miraculously launched the night before we left Kenya. Although it was not opened in the time we were there, a room with the perfect location was secured, bookshelves were built by a local craftsman, walls were painted by Koins interns and two local volunteers, and books that were transported from the U.S. were hauled in by village children. The vivid turquoise paint chosen by Joseph for this library brightens my mind with a hope for the future of these children, a hope that is mirrored in these brilliant picture-books and imaginative stories that tell young minds, anything is possible.