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.

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