Mobile libraries of Magadi

"Books give me hope"

It is a warm day in Magadi as a small group of adult learners gather under a thorn tree at the Komiti Catholic Centre. Among them are eight Maasai morans draped in bright red togas, wielding knobkerries in one hand and a clutch of well thumbed books in the other.

Also sitting in the shade of the tree, are a group of colourful Maasai women, bedecked in traditional beaded jewellery and engaged in an animated discussion that seems to centre on the contents of a book lying open on the lap of one of them. Such gatherings are not unusual but there seems something odd about this particular one. I soon realize that it is the presence of books among the paraphernalia on display that has caught my attention.

As I study the scene, I catch a glimpse of two donkeys with panniers strapped on their backs ambling towards the group. The arrival of the donkeys is greeted with cries of excitement as the women rise to their feet, dusting off their colourful shukas and retrieving books from plastic carry bags.

“What’s the excitement about?’ I ask as the women form a circle around the donkey with the biggest load. The woman leading the donkey and the gentleman accompanying her appear to be traders; they smile at the on-lookers and exchange familiar greetings with the women and the morans. Everyone seems to know each other very well.

I approach the group, craning my neck to see what treasures were about to be displayed. I would not have been surprised to see strings of colourful beads, or bags of sugar or flour or even piles of neatly folded shuka’s emerging from the panniers, but nothing prepared me for the sight of a pile of books being lifted out and spread out along the back of the donkey.

I was soon to learn that it was Thursday and the turn of Komiti village in Magadi division to be visited by the “donkey mobile library”.

Life in Komiti has followed much the same rhythm and routine for as long as anyone can remember. Young men still herd cattle, trekking them over vast distances in search of pasture and water; wizened elders regularly gather beneath acacia trees to deliberate over the choice of grazing areas and discuss the price of stock at the local cattle market; little boys armed with sticks and catapults, watch over small flocks of sheep and goats as they graze and browse among the thorn bushes. Women, busy themselves with their never ending domestic chores, gathering fuel wood, repairing their manyattas, collecting water from the local well, cooking the day’s meals and looking after the young, the old and the ailing.

Pastoralists are among the most marginalized people in Kenya and in Africa. Their nomadic lifestyle, a necessity for survival in the harsh and unpredictable environments they inhabit, has placed them at a distinct disadvantage in terms of gaining access to basic services. The high illiteracy rate among these people is both a result of their marginalization and the cause for their continued exclusion from the mainstream of development.

Outdated cultural values have also contributed to their isolation. The Maasai’s have a saying that “a man can not carry a spear in his right hand, his club and herding sticks in the other hand and still be able to carry books”. The sight, now unfolding, before me was proof that this ancient adage no longer holds true.

As I reflected on the presumed incompatibility between education and the pastoralist way of life, the women and morans jostled each other to look at the books on display. The titles ranged from The Orange Thieves and Shaka Zulu to the more prosaic Practical Primary English, Comprehensive Mathematics and Mkasa wa Shujaa Liyongo. Most of the books were written in English, with a few in Swahili. The subjects ranged from language to mathematics to storybooks of all types.

These excited readers were among the lucky few who had managed to acquire a few years of schooling or who were currently attending adult literacy classes.

Among those eagerly queuing to borrow books was Siaren Tipis, aged 23. 'I get books from the donkey library as it's difficult to find them anywhere else,' he said. 'I like reading because I want to be educated so I can engage in the livestock market effectively and help my family. I keep goats but don't have many. I want to be a businessman.'

The disparity between gender rights in maasai society is stark but the donkey library serves both sexes equally. Sombeet Sian, 17, who was holding a copy of Tujifunze Kiswahili, said: 'I like text books that teach me how to communicate with others and those that tell me what happened in the past. When I learn how to read and write I want to join the tailoring school in Kiserian.'

According to Paul Sambu*, the mastermind behind this library, “it is our moral duty to help adult learners in the division. They have ambitions that we can help to fulfill; they want to read, but have no access to books. How can they become successful businessmen and women without basic education? By offering them this service we can help them realize their potential and contribute to the development of their communities.”

Paul’s enthusiasm for what he does was unmistakable. He explained how the nomadic lifestyle, rugged terrain and poor infrastructure combined put education out of reach of the pastoralist community. However, he was quick to point out that it was far easier to adapt the provision of educational services to the lifestyles of pastoralists than the other way round. “Due to the need to be mobile, the community could not benefit from formal schools and libraries. The donkey library solves this problem by coming to them. “It regularly visits adult literacy centres and makes scheduled visits to manyattas (villages).’

As the older readers drift away with their latest acquisitions, Naiseri Ngombit, 18, the youngest member of the group, steps forward to examine the books on display. She is a young mother and the second wife of the local elder. Her first born child strapped snugly against her side watches as she flips the books over trying to make choice between Tujifunze Kusoma and Wake Up and Open Your Eyes by Edward Muhire. ”Books” she says “give me hope”.

Naiseri knows that literacy is fundamental to achieving her ambition of becoming a businesswoman and besides, she shyly remarks ”reading is more interesting than anything else here' The adult literacy centre in Komiti has only a few books. This shortage is compensated by the donkey library that arrives every Thursday laden with up to 200 titles to chose from.

Many of the books are supplied by Magadi Soda Company and Practical Action among other Magadi Community Development Secretariat members.

Each morning two donkeys - one carrying a pannier of books and another loaded with the day’s supply of food and water for the librarians - set off from Magadi town to one of 3 drop-off points in the division.

Mercy Mueni, a volunteer teacher working with Magadi Soda Company, observes “the adult learners are very enthusiastic and happy when they see the donkeys coming. The mobile library has now become a part of their lives.’

It's nearing the end of the ‘school day’. Donkey handler Ole Tipis and his assistant pack up the mobile library to prepare for the long trek home. The caravan leaves the church compound, and makes its way back to home base, their shadows lengthening with the setting sun.

George Kamau, Practical Action East Africa

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