Readers at Mathare North library

Project update: Creating Book Havens in slum communities

5th June 2017 | News

We are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to the books they need.

In slum communities, access to books and finding a place to read can be particularly difficult. Our new Book Havens pilot is providing Kenyan children who face the day to day challenges of trying to learn in slum areas with peaceful, welcoming spaces where they can explore beautiful, inviting books and be supported by trained staff and volunteers.

The need for libraries in Kenyan slum communities

Around 60% of the population of Nairobi lives in slum areas or informal settlements, with two of the largest being Kibera and Mathare. Estimates for Kibera range from 250,000 to over a million inhabitants and more than 500,000 for Mathare. Despite these numbers, the slum areas of Nairobi cover just 6% of the total residential land area.¹

With over 80% of households headed by single mothers, poverty can force young children to leave school in search of jobs or to make money in the informal economy and many end up involved in crime, drugs and prostitution.

Schools, too, are overcrowded and poorly resourced. Over half of grade 6 pupils report that classrooms do not have a single book and up to 40% of teachers say they have no book or guide to the subjects they teach.²

In these conditions, libraries play a vital role for children in providing peaceful place away from overcrowded residential areas which frequently have little infrastructure or amenities and provide support for overstretched school systems.

The Kenya National Library Service (knls) operates a library in the Kibera slum in Nairobi and the Mathare Youth Sports Association (MYSA) operates community libraries in the Mathare slum area. Both offer outstanding outreach services, but are currently forced to make do with only a few out of date books for children. The slum libraries are often also run by volunteers or staff who often lack training in how best to engage and support children.

How we are helping

As part of our new pilot, we are partnering with knls and MYSA to create Children’s Corners in the libraries they operate in Kibera and Mathare slums.

These Children’s Corners will give some of Nairobi’s most at-risk children with peaceful, welcoming spaces where they can relax and explore beautiful, inviting books. We also provide training for librarians in how to support children as part of our Children’s Corners programme, so the children will also receive the support of trained staff and volunteers who have the skills and passion to help them explore reading and begin a life-long love of books. The pilot will be trialled in three libraries: knls’ Kibera library and MYSA’s Githurai and Mathare North libraries.

Each library will receive:

– UK donated brand new books
– Small grants to decorate the libraries and make them child-friendly with paintings, child-sized furniture and educational toys and games
– Grants for locally-published books, including books in Kiswahili and other local languages
– Specialist training for librarians in supporting children and addressing their needs in the library, including children with special needs

We will also seek to encourage knls and MYSA to work together to share learnings, experience and skills.

What we have done so far

So far, we have trained 11 librarians and volunteers from the three pilot libraries. Many of these volunteer librarians had not received any formal training previously, so the training was transformative. The training covered basic library management, how to create a reading culture, how to reach out to local communities and how to monitor a library’s performance.

Librarians that attended the training already have a new perspective on their work. Volunteer librarian Stephen commented saying:

“I didn’t know that appreciating a child motivates a child to read. I’m surprised that such a simple act of compassion can have an impact on the child. I will observe children more and appreciate them whenever they come to the library and come up with a reward system which may include sweets, stickers or just saying ‘very good, keep it up’.”

– Stephen Kiragu, MYSA, Mathare North Library

The books for the new Children’s Corners arrived in Kenya in May 2017 and we hope that Children’s Corners will open in all 11 libraries serving slum communities by September 2017.

We are also considering expanding the programme to other vulnerable communities in line with our Vision 2020: where books change lives strategy. You can get involved or find out more using the links below.


¹IRIN (2013) cited in World Habitat Day 2013 Background Paper.

² Education for All Global Monitoring Report, regional overview: sub-Saharan Africa, 2009.


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