You met Claris Oyunga in Essay Eight.

I met Claris Oyunga in Mukuru Kwa Reuben, the Nairobi slum where she grew up.

When Claris received an Akili Dada scholarship to attend one of the most competitive high schools in Kenya, she promised to return to Mukuru on every school break, and, having identified a local problem, mobilize the community to solve it.

She knew from personal experience that families there could not afford to buy text books for their children, that school teachers lock their books in their classrooms every night for safekeeping, and that there was no library for miles.

Claris collected 300 used textbooks, enough to fill three shelves, and negotiated the use of a room in a small school in Mukuru. There, she opened a children’s library furnished with one bookcase, a desk and chair, and a second-hand couch where students could sit comfortably and read.

Claris’ library had no electricity, but then, it was only open during daylight hours when the sun shone through the open doorway.

Claris’ library had no door, so when the library closed, Claris pushed the sofa over the doorway (“This couch is multi-tasking,” she told me, laughing).

When Claris was away, the school’s headmaster ran the library. On school breaks, Claris ran it herself, interviewing the children to be sure her library was satisfying their needs. When I visited, she was learning that the students longed for storybooks, and she was determined to find fiction to add to the collection.


Kibera, another Nairobi slum, will be the site of the first Smart Library. The ten essays you just finished describe the genesis and educational philosophy of the Smart Libraries project.

You have read about some of the Africans and Americans who will collaborate to create the prototype. Claris Oyunga is among them, as are: James Lekaada, Yema Khalif, Dapo Tomori, Muyambi Muyambi, Chris Bradshaw, Chyah Weitzman, and the Pencils for Africa students in California, who have already begun fundraising (their first lemonade-and-cookies sale raised $500 for the Smart Libraries project).

Karim Ajania, who leads Smart Libraries, understands poverty well. His grandparents lived and labored in the slums and salt flats of Gujarat India. As you read in Essay One, his grandfather’s stories taught Karim about informal education and multiculturalism. I witnessed firsthand, the necessity of informal education in rural Gujarat when I photographed and interviewed craftswomen for my book, In Her Hands. Those illiterate women artisans were committed to sending their children to school with the money they earned from creating and selling embroidery.

Karim’s grandmother’s life taught him about formal education and multicultural diversity. I was honored to write the Foreword to Essay Two, in which Karim describes his grandmother’s strong conviction about the value of education. Her view resonates with the passion I witnessed among grandmothers in 15 countries, whose lives I documented for my book, Grandmother Power.

Karim’s grandmother apprenticed him in her own school’s elementary classrooms to read to younger children. How appropriate that the Kibera prototype for the Smart Libraries project will be named Shirin’s Library!

At age 14, Karim’s teacher helped him understand that “ignorance is being oblivious to the shame and humiliation” experienced by people who are illiterate. She prophesized that, “Many years from now, you will be able to plant the seeds for a solution to those who must endure the adversity of illiteracy.” The time has come.

By now, Karim, a veteran educator born in Nairobi who studied in Kenya and at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has been a teacher for more than 30 years, a school principal, and, for five years, has co-led the Pencils for Africa program: a laboratory for innovative programs and social enterprises.

The Smart Libraries project is a distillation of the dimensions of education that Karim has come to love.

Karim describes, in the Foreword, his passion for art, both as an expression of beauty and as a tool of community service. Kenyan mural artists will work with local children and their families in Kibera, to cover the inside and outside of the prototype Smart Library with vibrant paintings.

In Essay One, Karim shares his appreciation for the oral storytelling tradition, which is as much a custom in his grandfather’s country, India, as it is in most African countries including Kenya. Venerable elders in Kibera will find a seat of honor in the prototype Smart Library where they can take their time sharing their stories and wisdom with youngsters.

In Essay Three, Karim confronts the deep divide between his life as a prolific  reader and the reality of illiteracy, which he discovers inadvertently in a London bus conductor. The goal of the Smart Libraries project is to close the painful distance between literate and illiterate; to encourage the joy and confidence that learning to read can bring; to let in light where there has been darkness and fear.

Of course, in addition to art, oral storytelling, and literacy classes, Smart Libraries will have lots of books! There will be books written and illustrated by authors and artists from Kenya and other African countries. And there will be books from countries around the world.

The ten essays you have just read are a call to action, and an invitation to engage with the Smart Libraries project.

Our collaboration can begin if you, too, believe that enlightened education — education that builds on wisdom, tolerance, and understanding — is the pathway toward constructing creative communities and caring civilizations.










— Paola Gianturco