Children reading in Mathare, Kenya

A first-hand look at how books change lives

9th January 2017 | Blog

Emma Taylor, our new Head of Communications, recently visited a few of the libraries we support in Kenya and Uganda to get a first-hand view of the impact that the books we send are having on people’s lives.

In this, her first blog she reflects on how the people she met show how a book really can change a life.

When I told my good friend Katie that I was taking a role at Book Aid International she was curious about what the charity does. I explained to her that the charity existed to ensure that everyone had access to books because books change lives. She looked at me blankly. “But how?” she asked.

My jaw hit the floor. To a life-long book lover like me, the many ways that a book could change a life were self-evident. Katie, on the other hand, was not a reader. She had not read a book since leaving university.

To her, it was not at all clear how a book could have value in a poor community where basics like clean water and safe housing had not been met. In schools, she allowed, books could help education. But a library for adults in a community that didn’t even have electricity? She needed convincing.

It was with Katie in mind that I boarded the plane to Kenya. My mission was clear: Identify stories that would answer the question of how books are changing lives in vulnerable communities.

600,000 people in 3 square miles

I started my trip visiting libraries in one of the largest slums in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi called ‘Mathare’. Mathare is a small plot of land of about 3 miles square that is home to an estimated 600,000 people. No one knows exactly how many people live there because most Mathare residents are informal settlers who are not registered with the government. People live in small shacks made from whatever they can find – some tin, wood and tarpaulin typically.

A typical street in Mathare
A typical street in Mathare

Despite Kenya’s rapid economic growth and Mathare’s position in the country’s capital city, few the area’s residents have benefited from the country’s success and most lack formal jobs. I spoke at length to a woman who made around £0.70 a day selling canned goods. She tried to feed herself and her daughter with the money.

In these difficult, cramped circumstances our partner, Kenyan non-profit Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA), has managed to find space for three libraries. These libraries are so popular that when I visited, I could not actually get into them because every available centimetre was full of children reading. The librarians had to clear a path so that I could interview one of the readers, 16 year old Moses.

Two girls enjoying a book together at their local library
Two girls enjoying a book together at their local library

“Knowledge is power”

Moses is using books to improve his life
Moses is using books to improve his life

Once I was finally able to reach him, I asked Moses how the books in the library have changed his life. He explained that the books we send are crucial to his education:

In the past I saw English as a hard subject. But the moment I started coming to the library it became my favourite subject. English can make a very big difference in my life. It can be a career – and it improves my creativity and innovation.

But of course, Katie already knew that books help education. Her question was about the role of books in libraries that serve deprived communities like Mathare. Would it not be better to just send money so that houses, water pumps and roads could be built? I put the question to Moses:

We can have so many houses, but when we don’t have books we don’t have the knowledge of how to take care of the houses. So it’s important for us to have the books because knowledge is power – and that’s the best thing to have!

Moses’ message was repeated to me at all the libraries I visited. Of course library users acknowledged that their communities need other types of support as well, but all agreed that access to information is critical to building a bright future.

In rural communities, the agriculture books we send are allowing people to increase crop yields and fight off malnutrition. In cities, library outreach is giving children who are out of school the opportunity to read.

We’ll publish stories about a few of the people I interviewed over the next few months (so stay tuned!) and I am already looking forward to my next trip back to Africa so that I can meet more of the inspiring people who are reading our books and changing their own lives.

 

Emma’s experiences echo the messages we hear from our partners across sub-Saharan Africa: The books that they receive are helping people to build better futures for themselves and their communities. These books would not reach the people who need them most without the support of our donors, the publishers who provide the books and the volunteers who pack the books ready for shipment. We cannot thank all of our supporters enough.

If you’d like to hear from more of the people Emma met, please subscribe to our newsletter using the form at the bottom of this page or follow @book_aid on twitter.

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Find out how we support community libraries across sub-Saharan Africa.
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Mathare is just just one of the many Kenyan communities where our work is changing lives.
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