Monday, July 20, 2009

Kenya trip, day 7: Kakamega Provincial Library

We wanted to go to Kakamega to see KNLS’s provincial library. We got there the night before and camped at a sweet little guest house without electricity or running water. The guy who ran it asked us if we wanted to take a “traditional bath.” I thought that was hilarious. “You mean a bucket bath?” I responded.

The day we visited the library, we got up at 5 in the morning to hike in the forest in Kakamega. The forest is supposedly the only piece of jungle in East Africa, a relative of the jungle in Congo. Calling Kakamega forest a jungle is a bit of an overstatement if you ask me, but it’s beautiful and there are tall trees and three kinds of monkeys so it’s fun anyway.

After the hike, the owner of the guest house, Smith, hitched a ride into town with us and neither he nor the taxi driver knew where the library was, despite having grown up in the area. The taxi driver asked someone and we all went. We got to the library at around 11 am. It was a beautiful building. We found out later that it was built by the Finnish in the 70s.

Smith was blown away by the building and was shocked that he hadn’t known of it before. He did recognize the truck parked in the parking lot though. It was the book mobile, and he remembered the books he got from it when he was a kid.

We hadn’t warned the library we were coming, which was in part to see how things work when they’re not expecting “donors” to be there. They had no idea who we were, but they asked someone to take us around. We asked them about their relationship with the main office in Nairobi and they said that over all it was good, although sometimes the bureaucracy was such that things happened very slowly. They were promised renovation and expansion that hadn’t happened yet. Also, the book mobile that was bought by the British in the 60s had finally broken down for good a few years ago and they are still waiting for a new one. However, the library was well staffed and was full of really great books that had been donated by Book Aid through KNLS. It looked like they had more books than they could really accommodate, which is why they are so desperate to expand. These are problems, yes, but they are good problems!

We met a few very friendly librarians who were very informative and candid about the way the library works. One of them had been picked in a leadership initiative and sent by Carnegie council for training in Illinois.

When we asked Robert Cheriot, the provincial librarian, about the library in Busia, he knew exactly what library we were talking about and told us that Maria had been calling him. Maria has felt jerked around by KNLS and this guy seemed aware that he had been jerking her around. He said that he was about to leave his post in a few weeks and wanted to let the next librarian visit Busia and meet with Maria since there seemed little point if he was leaving so soon. It may have been a weak excuse, but at least we knew that Maria was very much on his radar.

Overall, we were thrilled with the library in Kakamega. It was very clear that they have a lot of problems, but the staff knows what those problems are and they are working within the limits of the bureaucracy to work them out. And most of the problems were indicative of how successful the library is, rather than how it’s stalling or mismanaged.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Kenya trip, day 5, Kids reading tent day

A few days before we got there, Maria and Mwalimu (Mwalimu’s name is Jeffrey, but we call him the Kiswahili word for “teacher”) invited kids from schools around the area to participate in a “reading tent day.” I’m not necessarily very good with children—more precisely, when there are more than 1 or 2 of them I simply don't like them—so I was a bit nervous for today.

When we got to the library, Irene and Ruth, two of the library volunteers, were busily matching up books to the cards that they had spent all night making. These were basically the handmade version of cards and envelopes that you find in the back of books in libraries in the US—at least, before most libraries were digitized. Alice explained to us that they needed to have all of these cards in the books before the kids could look at them. Ariel and I grabbed a stack of cards and started to match them to books. It turned out to be fun, like a game of memory. Once we got through the over 200 books that needed to be catalogued, we started gluing the envelopes in the books. We started with the kids books, since that was what we needed for the day.

When they were ready, we set up a registration table with the stacks of kids books. Alice and Ariel registered the kids as they came and checked out a book for them. This went on for about 5 hours. I sat there for a little while, but Ariel was there pretty much the whole time, until we started “the program.” The table was basically mobbed the whole time, with kids taking book after book and bringing them back. I think they also liked going to the table to get to talk to Ariel.

We bought some watercolor paints as a raffle prize, but there was a surprising demand to use them to paint at the event. So we got some paper out and the kids started drawing and painting pictures from the books. They also painted each others’ faces. Ariel and my’s favorite was a kid who painted a simple half circle around one eye but Maria said such asymmetry was very naughty. Some of the students were stellar artists.

At some point during the day, I stepped through a hollow piece of ground and scraped the back of my ankle. It wasn’t bad at all, but it bled profusely and was a little embarrassing. Maria and some street children helped me clean it up, and I introduced them to the wild world of hand sanitizer. The foot was a little stiff, so now one of my ankles was sprained, the other scraped up, and a porcupine quill injury in the side of my leg. Good stuff.

When we started the program, Mwalimu had all of the kids introduce themselves, say their class and what school they went to. One of the street children who Alice brought along hid during this period, but Alice got him out to introduce himself. He had been diligently getting books all day and looking through them eagerly, but he was clearly not comfortable around the school kids and of course was not able to say what school he went to since he doesn’t go to school. He had a look of quiet intensity the whole day, but he stayed from the very beginning to the very end.

I also made friends with Morris. I’m not sure where Morris came from. I think he saw the event and just came over. Morris was also very shy and didn’t speak any English. I tried to speak Kiswahili to him, but it probably just came out like jibberish and confused the poor thing. He was my buddy, though, and came with me to buy prizes and diligently helped me look for books that people asked for even though he had absolutely no idea what he was looking for. It became my goal to make him smile. This was not easy. I could get him to show me his two missing teeth, which came out as something between a smile and a snarl, but that was sort of cheating anyway. Finally, I showed him one of the pictures I took of him on my digital camera and he screamed with delight. We had to work quick, but we finally got a picture of Morris smiling.

After the introductions, there were speeches about how fabulous libraries are, and a couple of the kids recited poetry. We had a reading contest, where one kid from all the schools would read part of Maya Angelou’s Life Doesn’t Frighten Me. At the end, the students with the best drawings and the best reading got prizes. Finally, Maria handed out sodas and bananas from her farm.

At around 4pm, Ariel and I, half starved and totally beat from the day, went to Blue York, a hotel with wireless internet, to do some work and eat. Later still, we went with the library ladies, some old friends of mine in Busia, and some people from the hotel we were staying at to see live music at Check Inn, Busia’s hottest club. (There are three in town, and the District Commissioner had recently banned dance clubs, so two of them were all but shut down. The third, it was rumored, was allowed to stay open because they paid off the police. In any case, they seemed to have made an exception for this musician who is high profile in Kenya and had gone to the States to campaign among the diaspora for Obama.) Somehow, Ariel, Caro (a woman I used to work with) and I ended up on stage dancing with the band. But that’s sort of another story I guess.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

local v. KNLS management

In partnership with the Busia Community Library Service, we have been discussing issues of community ownership and the identification of an appropriate plot of land on which to build. These concerns are intertwined, and not because land is a resource that we lack. To the contrary, Busia community has a couple of options open to it. I think that the discussion is interesting, and hope that you will weigh in with your comments.

There are many benefits of working with the Kenya National Library Service, who owns a well-located and nice-sized piece of land in Busia, set aside specifically for the development of a community library. It is up to the community to construct the building. Once the building is complete, KNLS will undertake a competitive national search for the identification and hire of trained librarians, outfit the library with books and other materials, and take responsibility for the maintenance, management, and functioning of the library.  The Busia community, at this point, as the capacity to contribute a bit to some of these activities, but lacks the resources to fully manage any of them, so the KNLS involvement would be a boon.

Busia has, however, been operating a small-scale community library in some form since 2001, and local aspirations and local knowledge should not be discounted. The library is the project of the community, intended to serve Busia district and the surrounding region. In an underserved area, it would be nice if the new construction led to long-term positions of employment for locals. True, building the library will create some temporary positions, and maintenance and low-skilled staff positions will likely be created once the library is in operation, but holding a national competition, giving no preference for locals, for the skilled staff positions (save one) leaves it very unlikely that there will be continuity between the old library and the new, or that the community leaders who have been so involved in coordinating the maintenance of the existing library and the development of the new library will have more than nominal involvement in the functioning of the new library.

Acceptance of the KNLS offer of land means that once the library is built, Busia will hand over the keys, literally and figuratively, to KNLS. Identification of a different plot of land on which to build will be expensive for the community but will free it to negotiate, once the library is built, the level of involvement that KNLS will have with the community library moving forward. KNLS provides many services to unaffiliated public libraries, including training, technical assistance, and material support.

These ideas have implications for Maria’s Libraries beyond the Busia initiative. KNLS owns land in 72 communities across Kenya, on all of which they hope libraries will one day be built. Maria’s Libraries is very happy to work with KNLS to help develop these latent projects, but both organizations are very aware of benefits and drawbacks associated with partnering with KNLS.

Kenya trip, Arriving in Busia and book delivery!

We arrived in Busia at 5:30 in the morning and somehow made it to the hotel that Maria had booked for us, Farmview. It’s a bit out of town and does indeed have a view of farms. It’s also next door to Busia’s sewer treatment plant, which is sometimes called “the beach of Busia” and is a hit for dates on Valentine’s day.

The first thing we did was sleep. The next thing we did was walk through the fields on our way to the one paved road. Within minutes, I took a step off the path and sprained my ankle. Luckily, I have an ace bandage in my pack left over from spraining the same ankle almost exactly a year ago in Ecuador.

In any case, we finally made our way to town and visited with old friends. Maria was anxious to see us, so we got the two suitcases full of books and went to the library. With us, the suitcases, Maria and two of her friends, there was barely any room left. It’s such a small place, the library. There was a student sitting there studying. When we started pulling the books out, he noted the lack of economics books. I immediately pulled out the entire IPD collection and piled them in his arms. If he takes all that in, he’ll be Jose Antonio and Joe’s perfect protégé!

After the merriment surrounding the books, we sat down with Maria and Alice, someone who had been working on the library project for some time. We went over all of our activities since the spring, showed pictures of the fundraiser at Galapagos and the bike ride to Coney Island. They were thrilled that people in the US care about the library in Busia—they really had trouble believing it.

After the fun stuff, we told them all the things we had been worried about. We talked about the benefits and fallbacks of working with KNLS (see Ariel’s blog). We talked about sustainability issues and consistent opening hours. We talked about community ownership and—the biggest issue of all—land.

Maria and Alice told us about the politics of the town, and how building the library would fit in to those politics. Busia is located on the edge of Teso and Busia districts—this is two different tribes, the Teso and the Luhya. The dividing line has never been completely clear to me, but basically the one paved road that runs through town demarcates the lands. The library would of course be open and welcoming to everyone, but which side of the land we ultimately build on will ultimately send a signal about whose library this is, and could determine what kind of political support we get.

We also got to see what work they had been doing at the library. They had put a partition up which made the library look a lot smaller. On the other side of the partition, they were planning to offer computer services. They only thing they lacked was computers. The other innovation was that every book was catalogued in Microsoft Access, with title, ISBN numbers, authors, etc. There were 686 books total. We had just brought over 200 more.

The meeting was long and good. After we left them at the library, we went over to the internet café where we were shocked to find that wireless internet had hit Busia! We were all ready to take out our laptops and plug ourselves in when Jimmy, the owner of the shop, greeted us. We remembered each other from when I lived in Busia, and we told him about the library. He was immediately excited and took us on a walk to visit the areas he thought would be good for land. He’s great, very entrepreneurial, and had been the one to introduce wireless into Busia. We roped him in. He agreed to put some books into both of his shops, not to lend out, but to advertise for the library. He also agreed to come to the stakeholder meeting that we’re having next Tuesday to help generate ideas. If we can get all of Busia’s Jimmy’s on board—the good hearted, smart and driven people in Busia, the project will be all set.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

a tour of some KNLS libraries around Nairobi

I arrived in Nairobi, against all odds (particularly unfriendly weather and cancelled flights) at 6:30am on Wednesday morning. My friendly driver Edward and I quickly realized that he’d also taken Eva from the airport a few days earlier. He knew why my bags were so heavy (they were full of books), and knew that I’d passed through his hometown, Kitale, last year with Eva. Upon arrival at the Upper Hill Campsite and Hotel in Lavington, a nice section of Nairobi, we found Eva in the dining room, working away. She told me to drop my bags at the front desk and keep Edward near—we were to go directly to KNLS for a tour of a few KNLS-run libraries in and around Nairobi.

Our first stop was Thika, a busy suburb roughly 50km from Nairobi proper. A library had been built there in 1981, and the library’s director, Beatrice, answered our incessant questions and showed us around. A clean, well-lighted space, the Thika library consisted of a very large adult reading room, an only slightly smaller children’s space (both including an impressive book collection), a cyber café, a news area (both for adults and children), a large reception area, nice office space, and good public space both indoors and outdoors. KNLS was very proud of this well-functioning branch, with 27 full-time trained librarians and support staff. Beatrice was happy to let us know that its location on the border of Thika and a very large slum allowed for its use of much ground, provision of a quiet public space, and opportunity to serve a vastly underserved population of local children who were used to being shooed away from other public and private buildings in town.

We moved right on to the new library construction in Bura Bura, a middle class area of mostly civil servants just about 2km outside of Nairobi. As modern as they come, the shell of the building complex was complete—in addition to the 5-story main library building, there were shorter wings for a conference center, a business center (already in use by a bank, a print shop, and Safaricom, a Kenyan cell-phone provider), and a residence for a caretaker. Internet ports for more than 50 computers per floor revealed the modern aspirations of the town. After imagining the space filled with books, computers and people, we headed back to Nairobi with Omar, our host from KNLS, to get a look at the Nairobi branch, which was connected to KNLS headquarters.

The main branch had an impressive digital accounting system for tracking both members and books’ movement in and out of the library, as well as specialized resources for special needs groups, including the visually impaired.

After a quick, early dinner, Eva and I rushed back to pick up our things to bring to the bus station. We were soon on an overnight bus to Busia, where we dropped everything at the Farmview Hotel, to start a new day!

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How many Libraries are there in Kenya?

Good question! We don’t know, and neither does anyone else!

Because there are so many NGOs and other groups that run libraries in Kenya, no one really knows how many libraries there are in the country. KNLS has 54 libraries, and we are currently compiling a map to show their distribution around the country. However, there are probably many more libraries outside the KNLS network than inside.

We want to get a comprehensive list. Kenya Library Association is going to help us by sending a letter to everyone in their network asking them to send a list (with contact details!) of all the libraries that each of them knows about. We will put together the spreadsheet, deleting duplications. If we get to a point when we can hire someone in Kenya, one of the tasks will be to get in touch with those libraries and ask them to list all the libraries they know about. We will continue with this until we hit dead ends on all fronts and there are no new libraries to contact. It sounds like a lot of work, but a lot of projects in Kenya work this way—you get to know who is doing what by word of mouth.

In the meantime, if any of you know of any libraries operating in Kenya, let us know!

Kenya trip, Day One, meetings with KNLS, British Council and KLA

It is usually very difficult to set up meetings in Kenya in advance. After months of trying to get in touch with both Kenya National Library Services and Kenya Library Association, we had managed to set up meetings with both of them. This was probably mostly due to Rookaya at Carnegie Corporation who gave us the contact details for the director of KNLS and Lauren Messner who helped us track down Kenya Library Association.

Ariel’s flight was cancelled twice, so while I was hustling around Nairobi she spent her time looking for mushrooms in the Amsterdam airport (to no avail, but she did find tulip bulbs!).

Meeting one: First, KNLS gave me all kinds of good deets on libraries in Kenya. The truth is, no one really knows how many libraries there are in Kenya (see “How many libraries are there in Kenya?”). However, KNLS has the biggest network of libraries, with 54 spread all over the country. Western Province, where Busia is, has the least number of KNLS libraries in any of the provinces. It is by no means the least populated, though, and even the remote Province like North Eastern have more libraries. This is not to say that KNLS is not interested in working in western Kenya. It seems that land is more contested in western Kenya and it's difficult to get for libraries. KNLS is enthusiastic about putting a library in Busia. Many of them had been through Busia before, and knew it as a bit of a rough place. Irene, the director of KNLS, said that she thought that creating a public library that could serve as a landmark in Busia would change the whole nature of the town. I think this is right and the plans we have for the library immediately upgraded in my mind as she spoke. It would be so easy to change people’s mindsets both in Busia and about Busia if it was known as the town with the great library. So many times I’ve been struck by the grandeur of the New York Public Library and the Brooklyn Public Library (possibly one of my favorite buildings on earth), not only because of how big and beautiful they are, but because of how amazing it that in the US we have such temples to public knowledge. It shows where our priorities are. KNLS is interested in creating the same. They offered to take me on a tour of several libraries, but we decided to wait until Ariel arrived so that she could join.

I spoke with five people at KNLS: the deputy director, the director, two public relations officers and the resource mobilization officer. They were very aware of the problems that some community libraries had in working with them (see “Local vs. KNLS management”). They were also very candid about talking about why they had those policies.

Meeting two: Next I headed to the British Council, where I was supposed to meet with the Member of Parliament (MP) representing Busia. My friend Tedman from Nyanza Province, works at British Council and had arranged the meeting. I had actually met Tedman in 2006 in Kisumu when I was looking for the library that the British Council ran. He let me know that not only had they shut down the library, the British Council was retrenching and moving all their offices to Nairobi. What a shame! Since then, so many people from all over Western Kenya have told me fond stories of the British Council Library.

A few years ago in Lamu, an island off the coast of Kenya, I discovered that porcupine quills were the best instrument to hold up my hair (for those of you who don’t know: I have a lot of hair. It is big and unmanageable at the best of times, in dusty Kenya it is impossible). There’s a little stall in Nairobi that sells them, and I buy a few every time I come to Nairobi. I had put one in my bag that morning and as I was seated waiting for Tedman it broke through the bag, through my nice linen pants, and continued about an inch into my leg. Porcupine quills are sharp, as it happens. Just as I was pulling it out, Tedman came down. I was thought he might produce the MP right then, so I awkwardly tried to pretend nothing had happened. When I stood up, though, I could feel the blood gushing down my leg so the first thing I did was ask for the bathroom, somewhat tersely. In the bathroom, I tried to tie toilet paper around my leg but that didn’t work. Luckily puncture wounds clot quickly so I was able to make the bleeding stop pretty easily. I then returned to the meeting.

The MP didn’t show up (typical), but Tedman had gotten the entire “western” contingent of the British Council on board, and they got in touch with Busia’s former mayor, now a councilwoman, to tell them we were coming. Tedman’s approach was very interesting. He told her he had a gift for the town and all we asked for in return was land to put it on. He hung up the phone and nodded and said, “They will give you land” and that was that. I was excited to go to Busia.

Meeting Three: I went to the Uthalii House in town to meet with KLA. I couldn’t find the office for a long time and ended up somewhat randomly in the office of the man who I used to apply to for research grants across town. He remembered my face and we talked a little bit. He was doing the same work, he told me, but for a different ministry and was therefore in a different building. So weird.

I finally figured out where I needed to be, and met with three ladies from KLA. KLA is a loose association of professionals who are interested in libraries. They hold two conferences to discuss the state of Kenyan libraries every year. They listed for me a few libraries outside of the KNLS that they thought we should get in touch with. They also agreed to help us figure out how many libraries there are in Kenya (see “How many libraries are there in Kenya?”). These women confirmed what we already knew: People interested in libraries are some of the nicest, most helpful people anywhere!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Is there such a thing as an inappropriate book?

Ariel and I have talked a lot about this. We want to solicit books that the community wants, and once they have come up with a list of priority areas, we will start to look for them specifically as well as receive donations. But in general, are there books that we should turn away if donated?

Of course all books have value—some of them for valuable information, some of them for a perspective on what was once considered valuable information (my master’s dissertation was, in part, a discourse analysis on science and policies around sexually transmitted diseases in Africa in the 19th century). But we’ve decided that outdated textbooks are not worth sending over. Our resources are too scare to use them sending information that can’t be used here and now!

However, with some books it’s less clear. For example, we received several up to date high quality psychology textbooks. One of them specifically dealt with gender issues. I was fascinated with the book personally, and was leafing through the pages. As I did so, I started to wonder if psychology was completely Western-centric. Of course, Franz Fanon was a psychologist who wrote the book which has been one the most influential books all over Africa, "The Wretched of the Earth." But this book was somewhat different. Do chapters detailing the effects of cafeteria politics on girls have any relevance in rural Kenya? I don’t have the answer to this.

Another book dealt with queer theory and sexuality. All over the world, there are people who are attracted to people of the same sex. But the social constructs of how those relationships manifest are so different across societies. In Iran, the government can state that there is no such thing as homosexuality while sex change operations are perfectly acceptable. In Kenya, homosexuality is not at all accepted but in some Muslim communities on the coast there are men who wear hijab and live as women. When I was living in Busia and reading Middlesex, about a hermaphrodite in the mid West, many people would ask me what the book was about. When I told them, the response invariably was, “Oh, like that woman who works at the Post Office.” How people consider issues of sexuality varies so dramatically across countries that I’m not sure a book made by and for Westerners about sexuality really makes any sense in the Kenyan context. Again, I don't have an answer for this.

The final example was this book:

Ironically, Ariel and I received this book right after having a long conversation about whether we should put restrictions on what books we accept. When we first saw this, our reaction was to laugh and show people in the office. But later we thought about it in a more sober light. To me, the example of deciding not to bring this book to Kenya is poignant. It underlies the bitter irony of the how the world’s inequalities do not serve anyone. It underlies not only the gross imbalance in things like provision of medications but also the uphill battle that we all face to make sure the institutions that surround us serve us all well.