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!