Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Original Art Raffle Today, June 13!!

In honor of the Global Giving matching grant, we're raffling off Big and Small Fish, a painting by Seth-o Omollo, one of the artists we work with in Kisumu Kenya.  Donate on our Global Giving project pages here or here.

10$ donation = 1 raffle ticket
50$ donation = 7 raffle tickets
100$ donation = 15 raffle tickets

Big and Small Fish is beautifully framed using recycled wood from Maine barn doors.  The dimmensions are 12 3/8 X 8 1/4 and is valued at 400$.  Seth-o Omollo is part of a street artist's collective in Kisumu Kenya and has exhibited work in Kisumu, Nairobi and Portland, Maine.

The raffle drawing will take place on June 14, and the painting will be bubble wrapped within an inch of its life and mailed to the winner.  Half of the proceeds will go to Maria's Libraries, and the other half will go to the artist himself.  It's a great way to support libraries and local artists in Kenya!

For those of you in New York City, be sure to check our our first ever Maria's Libraries Salon at the Drink in Williamsburg on June 13 from 7-9.  This is a party and a nerdfest, what could be better?  You can check out the deets
here. . .

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Kitabu Kenya, promoting a network of libraries

Libraries in Kenya face similar challenges. From our conversations with librarians all over Kenya, the common threads are pretty clear. At the top of that list are resources. Both community libraries (those sponsored and run by the community, sometimes with the help of outside donors) and public libraries (those run by the government) report that have trouble getting high quality books, sponsoring innovative programs, and improving the library infrastructure. Many community libraries also face sustainability issues. Another common challenge, particularly in rural or semi-rural areas, is reaching out to people who don’t live in walking distance of the library; affording transportation to the library is a problem. And, finally, as anyone working in the literacy industry in Kenya will tell you, it is difficult to promote reading that is not directly related to school curricula or the news.

Libraries in Kenya also face completely different challenges. Some areas have trouble with electricity or internet. Librarians have different levels of training, in particular between community libraries and public libraries. In some areas, there are very few books that the majority of local population can understand, since local language books remain rare. Populations have different levels of education, different relationships to reading for pleasure, and sometimes different social and economic needs. The last one here is important, because, as libraries address locally specific barriers to information, the services may be very different between, for example, a predominantly agricultural community and a predominantly pastoralist community.

Maria’s Libraries thinks that a network of libraries can help individual libraries deal with their common and dissimilar problems. Forging relations among libraries and librarians help turn many challenges into collaborative opportunities. First, while some resources, like staff salary or electricity bills, can’t be shared among libraries, some resources could be an economy of scale. How can libraries share high-quality books, for example? How can they jointly design programs or come together to receive trainings? Second, librarians can share experiences. Even where information needs are different, how can the experiences of one library inform the experience of another library? Since many of the librarians in our network have different backgrounds and experiences, simply bringing them together and asking them to talk through these challenges can go a long way towards strengthening libraries services throughout our network.

In 2009, we launched our pilot network of libraries, or Kitabu Kenya. Currently, we work with libraries in Busia, Elangata Wuas, Garissa, and Lamu. This involves the work of a lot of organizations, including (get ready for a list of champions!): Africa Soma, the Elangata Wuas Resource Center, Family Support Services, Kenya National Library Services, the National Museums of Kenya, and (in the first round of programs) Slums Information Development and Resource Center. In our first program, the Citizen Archivist Project, we also included a library in Kibera, and we are hoping to again include a Kibera library in our next round of activity (a future blog will describe the new library in Kibera!). Thus far, we have run two programs through the library—the well documented Mama Mtoto Storytime project and the aforementioned Citizen Archivist Project— and have held one training for all of the librarians. We currently have two trainings planned, and are hoping to launch another program this year. At each training program, in addition to sessions dedicated to particular capacity-building lessons, librarians from all the sites discuss their experiences, both with the programs we’ve implemented and more generally. We hope that eventually, the librarians will develop training manuals out of these discussions, which can be of use to librarians in other parts of Kenya and/or other parts of Africa.

The next few posts will profile each of the libraries currently in our network!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Meeting Google in a Banana Grove


Remember before we had computers? The world worked, well, maybe as well as it does now. We (or, let’s face it, our parents), were well informed about politics, if they had such proclivities. They were able to work, communicate with friends and family, and do all of the basic functions that we now rely on computers for.

I know this is true. But it still came as a bit of a shock to me when, sitting on Maria’s farm in Busia, a long very in-depth conversation with Stephen Odhiambo (who works on Maria’s farm) about American politics turned into a discussion about how Stephen had never used a computer. How was it possible for him to be talking to be about the field of Republican candidates, politics in a country very far away, without ever having touched computer? I’m not even going to try and answer that. I probably should have asked him, but didn’t.

Instead, I said, “Sit right there” and leapt up to get my computer. I plugged in my Safaricom USB stick that connects us to internet, and right there, sitting under the banana trees, Stephen interacted with a computer for the first time. I showed him word. I taught him how to make spaces between words, capitalize a letter and delete things when you make a mistake. We moved on to the internet. I asked him what he wanted to know—any issue. He wanted to know how vitamins work.

I googled it. Looking at the predictive search terms that came up, I said, “Do you want to know what vitamins do for the body, or how they work?”

Stephen sounded annoyed. “I know what they do for the body,” he answered, “I want to know how they work.” A minute later we were pouring over chemical equations.

We found the farm that we were sitting on using Google satellite. At the end of about an hour, we were chatting with my friend Yulia in New York, using video Skype. Welcome to the digital age, Stephen.

Ok, so this is a tale of two worlds, where one of us cannot imagine even a day without a computer and one of us has literally never touched one. But that world is not adequately described by geography, or ‘developed’ vs. ‘developing’, at least not in this case. After all, we were able to access all of the most important functionalities of the digital age right there on Maria’s banana farm, right there in remote Busia, Kenya.

This is a tale of access. Stephen doesn’t own a computer, none of his friends own a computer. This is also a tale of knowledge. Stephen could go to a cyber café, but what would he do there? He doesn’t know how to use a computer, and simply playing around is expensive. This is a dramatic inequality in access and knowledge about technology.

In this context, what does a library do? It is clear that Stephen is not unique in Busia. Even Maria—who has opened a cyber café to support the library—doesn’t use email. The computer classes we’ve done at the library have exposed people to a new world . I gave an impromptu computer class to Maria and Emily Pamba, another key figure on the library management team in Busia, at Maria’s cyber café, and the whole place joined in to learn more. They saw my parents' house in Maine and mine in Brooklyn (Google street view this time). In response to questions, I went through the differences between Facebook and Twitter, in addition to why and how to use both.

Point being, even in super techno-hip Kenya, the need is there, and it’s not an abstract need. When you talk to people who are on the other side of that access and knowledge gap, there is a hunger to have the opportunity to learn.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012


Since the beginning of this project, we’ve said that the one of the benefits of the library would be to provide a safe space for kids to spend time when school is not in session. In fact, we argued, it would be the only public space in Busia for kids—how could they not flock to it? Well, flock they have.

The good news is, the library is packed with kids every minute that school is not in session. I mean, the place is busting at the seams. And they are reading-- they are reading Harry Potter, they are reading astronomy, they are reading children’s books. Yesterday I saw two 14 year-old girls examining a kids biology books, discussing in hushed tones the development phases of the human fetus.

The bad news is—well, I’ll just repeat: the place is busting at the seams. The space is simply too small. Oh, how Busia needs a new library!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Inequality Predicament

I arrived in Busia last night after being in Nairobi for a week. Maria and Mwaeka, who is the Busia Community Library’s primary liaison to the education community, were waiting in town when we arrived. As any proper catch-up should, we started with drinks. Tusker baridi at the end of a long, hot, dusty day, mmm. . . .

Maria had so many things to tell me. I’ll go into it a lot more in the coming few weeks. Something that stuck out, though, was the one book that Maria was asking for. The library used to have it but it was too damaged to save in the flood that the library had last year. The book was actually a report by the UN under Kofi Annan: “World Social Situation: the Inequality Predicament.”

“That book is a must for the library,” Maria insisted. “It is everything that we are built on.”

I will shamefully admit I haven’t read it. Adding it to my reading list!