Peter Cyril Otieno firmly believes in the mantra: “Just because you are breathing doesn’t mean you’re alive.” For Peter, the true meaning of living is making a difference in someone else’s life.
The 24-year-old, who is the founder and executive director of Smallest Library in Africa, says that everyone has a role to play in making the world a better place.
Peter’s love for education started early in life but lack of a favourable environment to study would trouble him. This made him vow that no other child will experience the same within his locality. Investing in a community library thus became his purpose and driving force in life.
“I was born in a family of six children. We lived in Baba Dogo Estate, Nairobi, and the small room we called home could barely fit all of us. Needless to say, there was no space to do my studies,” recalls Peter.
After form four, Peter pursued a Diploma in community development, as he desired to work for his community. He had experienced the struggles that people in informal settlements go through and it is here he wished to use his trade.
Top on his mind was that vow he had made as a child and he was adamant to see it through despite the challenges he faced.
“I started the library and trust me; it wasn’t a walk in the park. I didn’t have funds to buy books let alone rent premises. My parents were against the idea as they expected me to look for a paying job. My mum was very skeptical about the move and she couldn’t figure out how I would embark on such an initiative while I stood a good chance to get a good job,” says Peter who was 21 years at the time.
But the lack of funds would not hold back a determined Peter and he looked for ingenious ways to start the project. There was an open field that was used as a sports ground and it is here that the library was first set up, however, it could only operate at night. To illuminate the space, Peter bought a huge rechargeable torch.
“Most people didn’t take the library project seriously when I was starting out. They regarded the idea as absurd. At the same time, there were other challenges, for instance, we only had a handful of books and we couldn’t operate during the rainy season. For me, everyday is a learning day and so a day passing without reading is a loss,” he says.
The challenges didn’t dampen Peter’s spirit and he tried reaching out to individuals he thought would come to his help. When no help was forthcoming, Peter resolved to soldier on alone.
So Peter made do with whatever was at his disposal and his inspiration grew as the number of pupils attending the library ballooned. He collected textbooks from well wishers.
It wasn’t long before a Good Samaritan, touched by the plight of the children hungry for education and Peter’s strong willpower, came to their rescue. The Good Samaritan offered to pay for rent.
The library opens at 2pm during weekdays and 10am on Saturday and closes at 8pm. Primary school pupils trickle in immediately after their classes while upper primary and high school students start trickling in at around 4:30pm as most of them leave school between 4pm and 5pm.
Students are able to access a variety of textbooks hence exposing them to more than one concept. Learners are also privileged to interact with storybooks, novels and other inspirational books, which help them to develop their language and communication skills.
“When I was still in school, most of us couldn’t afford textbooks and you could find less than 10 textbooks in a class of 40 students. Completing assignments was a challenge and this greatly affected our performance in school. I am glad that with the library, these children don’t have to worry about the textbooks,” he explains.
If Peter needed further affirmation that the library is what children in his locality needed to excel in academics, then he got it as most of the children who attend the library regularly are scoring good grades.
In 2014, the year the library started, one of the pupil’s who used to study in the library performed so well in the summative primary examination, ultimately earning himself a spot in a national school.
The number of children attending the library has significantly risen especially when parents notice the impact it has on their children’s performance.
“At first most parents didn’t take us seriously but currently a good number of them encourage their children to attend the library as they have seen its fruits. Understandably, education is not a priority in slums as there are a lot of challenges facing residents hence most parents concentrate on other things like paying rent and feeding the family. The positive response is thus a good sign that parents are starting to appreciate education,” he says.
Peter points out that he uses the library to motivate children to work harder and lead responsible lives.
“Living in the slums is not easy. Youths and children are exposed to all manner of ills like drugs, early sex and teenage pregnancies among others, which see some of them drop out of school,” he says.
“I am excited that we finally have a roof over our heads and the weather does not affect us. Come rain, come shine, learning will go on. We are urging Good Samaritans to support us with chairs, tables and bookshelves to make the library more habitable,” he says.
Peter, who concurs with former South African President the late Nelson Mandela on education being an important tool that one can use to change the world, says,
“My dream is to have a better library where we can attract other members of the community who are not necessarily in school. Education has a way of broadening one’s thinking capability and there are great mind in slums, which can be awakened if given the right exposure.”
He notes that the library is cultivating a reading culture in the slums hence the need for expansion.
“We have many students in this community and they can’t all fit in our premises. We don’t even have enough books to meet the number we usually register every day,” he notes.
Peter also remarks that the library has brought a sense of unity in the slum as it brings together children from all tribes and religions and they collectively share the few resources they have hence demystifying myths, which some parents teach their children about other tribes.
Nipeleke Shule initiative…
Peter explains that due to the large number of students who drop out of school after class eight; he has started an initiative to support those who have performed well through the Nipeleke Shule (take me to school) initiative.
“Most of the students in slums stop their education after class eight while others drop out while in secondary school due to lack of school fees. Most of the dropouts end up engaging in criminal activities for a living. Currently, with the help of well wishers, the library is sponsoring 12 high school students,” he says.
Peter notes that globally, a lot of children miss out on school due to extreme poverty. And it is even worse for girls as they are married off at a tender age while others are forced into labour to earn an extra income for the family.
“The initiative’s aim is to ensure that no child misses school due to poverty or gender inequality by supporting them through payment of school fees and purchase of academic stationeries,” he concludes.