Smart is a Precious Resource


Karim Ajania




James Lekaada


Recently, Ella, an editor of Pencils for Africa, interviewed me about my life here in Samburu.

It is hard for me to express to you, reader, what an honor and privilege it was for me, my family, and my whole tribe, to have been interviewed by Ella, and also, for the past 3 years now, to have had 7 Skype calls with the wonderful Pencils for Africa team.

I am moved beyond words by these experiences of young people outside Africa, taking such a sincere interest in the life of Africans. These young Pencils for Africa students truly perceive ‘understanding’ as a precious resource. I think that they are very smart!

I also think that understanding is a precious resource, and to me, the most precious resources of all is Nature. I love to care for Nature because Nature cares for me, my family, and my whole tribe.

When I plant a tree, reader, when I care for an animal, reader, then I plant a tree and care for an animal for you and for me, because you and me, we share this planet Earth together as One.

Yes, as is the title of this essay by Karim, “Smart is a Precious Resource”. Yes it is! I agree!

Smart, such as the smart understanding that Pencils for Africa students like Ella have shown to my Samburu tribe, to understand their neighbors in Africa, is very good. I like this very much!

For young people like Ella to understand what is a precious resource can change our history.

What do I mean? I mean this:

We, as African, have been saddened for centuries by the greed of rich and powerful men who see precious resources only as precious gems and commodities. In this essay, Karim writes:

“Economies rely upon the drilling for precious resources such as oil and gas, and the digging and mining for precious gems such as gold and diamonds.”

Yes, that is what has been our African history, in fact.

Rich and powerful and greedy men, like Cecil John Rhodes of Britain, and King Leopold II of Belgium, came to Africa to dig up Africa and mine for gold and diamonds, and rubber and ivory. And to enslave us Africans. They did not do the digging and mining themselves, they used strong young African men, and even little African children, and sent them down the dark, unsafe mines.

And if they did not harvest enough rubber from the rubber trees or kill enough elephants for their ivory in Congo, then King Leopold asked that the slave laborers’ hands be chopped off.

If the mines of Cecil John Rhodes in Matabeleland and Mashonaland in Zimbabwe, and Bechuanaland in Bostwana, did not have enough slave labor to work in the mines, he would have his men create a tribal war and then use the left over young men to send down his mines.

This way, he could become rich and name a country after himself: Rhodesia.

This is our African history when people from the outside came here for centuries.

They did not want to understand us, they wanted to take our precious mineral and human resources. They were never interested in us as human beings, like Pencils for Africa is.

And so, for young people like Ella and the Pencils for Africa students to see understanding as a precious resource, it warms my heart, and it gives me much hope for the future of Africa.

We are all on a new road here, a better road. I am so happy about this!

— James

Smart is a Precious Resource


Karim Ajania



Human resources are like natural resources.

They are often buried deep. You have to go looking for them. They are not just lying around on the surface.

— Sir Ken Robinson

The global economy requires a lot of digging and drilling for precious resources.

Economies rely upon the drilling for precious resources such as oil and gas, and the digging and mining for precious gems such as gold and diamonds. Nevertheless, precious resources must increasingly include the creativity and innovation that generates companies such as Apple and Google and, in countless incremental ways, improves the quality of life through more ethically and environmentally mindful ingenuity. Inspired breakthroughs in improving the quality of global trade and industry, will make for better future work environments and more vibrant economies.

The role that today’s middle school students play in this future economy will be essential.


Orville and Wilbur Wright [ Smithsonian National Archives ]

If we did all we are capable of we would astound ourselves.

— Thomas Alva Edison

Within a decade, most of today’s middle school students will be entering the global workforce.

How will these students be equipped to navigate their way through the transforming landscapes of global trade and industry, and how will they make their own contribution through creativity and innovation, within an increasingly competitive and dynamic international marketplace?

I believe passionately that we don’t grow into our creativity, we grow out of it. Or rather – we get educated out of it.

— Sir Ken Robinson


…back to the drawing board.

These are questions that I ask myself constantly as an educator.

One response to these questions is to build a ‘laboratory’ of ideas within the Pencils for Africa (PFA) forum, that generates innovative programs and social enterprises. Innovative programs such as What is Smart, and social enterprises such as Portfolio PFA, Slum Library, Books for Kenya and Liberian Librarian, are direct results of vibrant dialogues that occur during PFA meetings.

Claris built a library in Mukuru kwa Ruben slums in Kenya

Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood.

Now is the time to understand more, so we may fear less.  

— Marie Curie

PFA Community member Claris is CEO of Slum Library


The best dividends on labor invested have invariably come from seeking more knowledge rather than more power.

— Orville and Wilbur Wright, 1906.


Lucia and Paola and Charlotte

Just as in the real world, in real company strategy meetings, and in real industrial engineering laboratories, where ideas are presented, vigorously debated, then tested, then tinkered with, then experimented upon; so it is with student ideas that are examined within the ‘laboratory’ of PFA.

The role of a creative leader is not to have all the ideas.

It is to create a culture where everyone can have ideas and where everyone can feel they are cherished and valued.

— Sir Ken Robinson


For example, the initial idea for the What is Smart program began as a conversation between PFA Editor Lucia, and PFA Executive Board member Paola, after Paola had just returned from Kenya.

Paola was presenting her research of the Akili Dada scholarship students in Kenya such as Claris, to Lucia and the other PFA students. Lucia was inspired by Claris, who built a library in the slums.

From that one conversation between Lucia and Paola, a value was perceived that generated the What is Smart program. Today, this program includes a lively alliance with the Akili Dada scholarship students in Kenya. Moreover, this innovative program has now grown from a local conversation between Lucia and Paola, to a global conversation embracing the PFA community.

PFA harnesses the student ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas to encourage creativity and innovation.

In so doing, PFA expands the scope of creativity and innovation through space and time.

Her calculations proved as critical to the success of the Apollo Moon landing program, and the Space Shuttle program, as they did to those first steps into space.

— NASA regarding Katherine Coleman Gobel Johnson


Many highly talented, brilliant and creative people think they are not – because the thing they were good at at school was either not valued, or was actually stigmatized.

— Sir Ken Robinson

Through space, by taking local classroom interactions on ideas such as What is Smart, and expanding the global outreach of these interactions to schools and students in African countries.

Through time, by perceiving that participation in interactions that generate creativity and innovation will have an economic value-added and provide a sharp competitive edge a decade from now, when today’s PFA students enter into an increasingly global and technological workforce.


On July 20, 1969, when Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon, he carried with him, in tribute to the Wright brothers, a small swatch of muslin from a wing of their 1903 Flyer.

— David McCullough, The Wright Brothers