How we build libraries? Step by step experience from the co-founder of Bookfeeding Project

10/10 2015  Kenya

Our library is in Likoni - a very poor slum area just a 'ferry ride' from Mombasa Island. I already have done one project here so I am a bit familiar with the area and I also know many people here. Therefore it wasn't that difficult to find the perfect spot for our next library.

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As this whole library is financed by Kipepeo Foundation we decided to build the library at the school where they operate. Kipepeo is a charity with similar values to ours, at the moment they focus on coaching boys from street and orphans football and giving them motivation and some kind of hobby in their lives. You can find more information about this charity on the 'Sponsors and Friends' page.

After I found this place and received some money to start with the reconstruction I met up with local fundi and the headmaster and we made an estimation of the costs. After that day I was in the library every day. I always came in the morning (according to the Kenyan time  which means basically after you wake up and have a nice breakfast). I would take photos of the fundi working, or of the progress we have made so far. Sometimes I would talk and play with the children and visit their classes. Most importantly I was there every day to check on the finances. See what else needs to be bought, who needs to be payed and to collect receipts for the material.

Transparency is very important as we want to show everyone that all the money goes to the project. Unfortunately, getting a piece of paper showing how much you spent in the shop is often impossible in Kenya. For example if you are paying for local transport (hiring the wheelbarrow to transport the sand), mats for children (that are being sold by a man on a bicycle who is making them in the evenings and is not educated and most likely illiterate) or for sand that is simply bought from a family that happens to have a property with lots of sand on it. Prices for many things are negotiable (and usually higher for mzungus – white people) and that is also why I preferred our fundi to buy the material.

Bookfeeding focuses on giving the opportunities of employment to the locals but also tries to explain the idea of volunteerism so when a library is open there are enough volunteers ready to help out and run it. During this project we also focused on buying materials from the most disadvantaged, give jobs to those who needed it and introduce the idea of volunteerism to the teachers.

After the first week, when all the cementing and walls-painting was finished, I decided to buy some paints and started painting. There are many reasons for this activity, first – it reduces the expanses to build such a library as art-painting (eg. Pictures, logos..) are expensive, second it breaks the stereotypes that ‘white rich tourists don’t work with or side by side with black people’ and thirdly believe it or not, people will respect you more – or let me correct this statement, they will respect you in a different manner. I learnt this long time ago on previous projects I have done in Africa. Suddenly I wasn’t the sponsor who has the money and wants to make a mark and take some pics of cute kids, but I became a friend, someone they felt comfortable around, someone they could joke with and eat with. When you show that you too can eat their food in their way (e.g.with hands) they see you as a friend. They realized I don’t look down on them for their customs and culture but instead I am happy to learn new things and try different foods. Instead of being this white lady who refuses to touch that glass of water because they might be some disease on it, I’d ask if there are leftovers. Instead of being upset that a kid run into me with his dirty uniform I run with the kids and make my clothes dirty. I had the most colourful and dirtiest clothes after all that painting anyway.

Have you ever try to paint a tree on a wall that is around 4m tall while you only have a ladder that can get you to 2.5m? Yeah my flip-flops and this dangerously looking unstable ladder became friends after all, but it took a lot of split paint.

During my painting days, I would spent about 5hours in the library, occasionally speaking to the kids or fundi but usually impatiently waiting for their funny jokes and heads popping into the door in their breaks. I would listen to them singing, learning maths or being punished for coming late. Teachers would come to the library room to give suggestions, or to help painting even if only with one letter or leave.

Three days into my painting the headmaster introduced me to local artist, I figured he can paint the front wall at the entrance to the library, this way he gets at least some job. He was also a funny guy who did not expect mzungu to paint neither to be able to paint animals… Well, I am happy I could impressed someone and to explain them some myths about us – white people. Not everyone has dollars and two cars, not everyone gets money if he is not working and not everyone is from America.

Yes, breaking the stereotypes is difficult, for us in the West there is just one Africa and very few people realizes that there are more states than in Europe with even more diverse culture, language of GDP and economy, yet for as they are Africans, so how can I be surprised that to them we look, act and are all the same too? Germans, Bulgarians, Spanish or Czech... isn’t it all just a version of America?

I think that's enough of philosophy :) I must say that I enjoyed building this library as much as I enjoyed every other library I have built so far. Painting is done and now I am just waiting for the floor to be finished. While I was painting our amazing fundi who can do everything fixed the electricity and built few shelves and benches. There are only three things remaining – the floor, children involvement and the books. Floor should be ready by now, children will be getting finger paints on Monday to show how they can paint and do they mark in the library walls and the books are scheduled to arrive in a month of time to the port of Mombasa. We are all excited here, aren’t you?!?!

Alena