“Any child has the capacity to succeed if they’re given the right tools”

15th September 2021 | Blog

My name is Sarah Ogembo, I’m a librarian at Kenya National Library Service and I work in the project coordination department.

I love my job because I get to see the marvellous, wonderful things it does for children which is close to my heart. In 2016, Book Aid International was looking for five town schools in Kenya to start the Inspiring Readers programme, so I expressed interest and we started working on the project with the schools that I had selected. 

That was the first project I ever implemented, and I have to say it changed my view totally on what libraries do. It motivated staff to look at librarianship as more than just shuffling books to and fro, dusting books or being at the counter. We got to train teachers who really desired to get additional skills to run a basic library. The majority at the time were not aware that you could have just a box library or a cupboard library or a bag library. So the journey through the implementation of the first five schools was so eye-opening for me and the staff I was working with at that time. 

The design of the Inspiring Readers programme is unique. It focuses on the professionals. Empowering them, giving them the right tools, the slides, the materials, it was all so spot on. The professionals felt empowered.

Not every child is able to access a brand-new storybook. So, the fact that this programme was coming on board with close to 1,500 books per school was so enticing to the children because they thought “I could not get storybooks at home, but now I can access the storybooks now that they are coming to my school, and I am allowed to borrow them”. It whipped the children up into a frenzy, they were eager to read, they wanted more! We now go into schools where children tell us:

I read all the books in the cupboard and we want more, are you here to give us more?

Inspiring Readers is a realistic project. Schools don’t need to have a fancy building, you don’t have to set aside a room for this, you just need a small space or a corner where we can put this cupboard and say: This is our start-up library. The project was also put together so effortlessly that is was easy to implement. That is what made it so popular and it stood the test of time. 

Outside of Inspiring Readers, I would say around 10% of children have the ability to access books – those whose parents can afford to buy them. The government provides competency-based curriculum books but does not extend that support to leisure reading or storybooks at all.

It is not financially possible for many parents to be able to afford to buy storybooks for their child

So the child is left with one book that is given to them to share with their classmate and that’s just curriculum-based. It’s not easy for all parents in Kenya to get storybooks for their children – that is an economic issue, it’s got nothing to do with the fact that they don’t want their kids to supplement their reading. But between the acquisition of basic needs and books then a parent would opt for food. That is why some of these kids, the majority of them, saw storybooks for the first time through this project. The books are colourful and the children were attracted by the words that were being used. Students that have not been able to access a library or books ever have been able to get that safe space for the first time, where the entry is free and they can access the collection of all junior materials at no cost.

When I was younger, my mum used to drop me at this library along with my brother. She would go to work and then come at lunchtime and pick us up when it was time to go home.

I remember my curiosity at that time and my love for reading those storybooks. 

My passion for reading began there, and now I’m still an avid reader. Maybe there’s something my mum saw, I don’t know but I know it began there and I can see it in my brother as well. We still read. Despite the fact that life happens when you’re on the road, there’s still something that a book does.

Books transport you to a place you have never been.

They take you through someone else’s journey, someone you do not know. It’s just that innate joy that comes from flipping the pages of a book.

What keeps me going is the fact that there are children out there who desire to read, who would want to access storybooks and for one reason or another they don’t get their chance like I did.

That touches on me personally because if my mum didn’t have the resources or the finances to bring us to the library, we could have been those children that had the desire, but no outlet because it just wasn’t there. So for me, empathy comes in when I look at these brand new books.

There are places in Kenya where a child touches a book for the first time and actually smells it. Because this is a new book.

They are so used to hand me downs. They may not even know how to read, but the fact that they can flip through a new book with colourful pages makes them light up!

I hope and pray that it is possible that no child who wants to read ever misses the opportunity to access storybooks because I feel like it’s the greatest injustice ever. Any child has the capacity to succeed in life if they’re given the right tools. 

I know one day we will speak to someone who will remember that their life changed because they read a storybook in their school that was provided by Book Aid International through the Inspiring Readers programme, and I know that time is coming very soon.