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.