Giving a Hand Up not a Hand Out

Slum Lib 7

Introduction by Karim

I find it inspiring and heartwarming to have the privilege to introduce this very thoughtful interview by Carly, the Treasurer of the Pencils for Africa (PFA) Executive Board, with Rutendo, the Vice Chair of the PFA Executive Board. Carly and Rutendo have strived to understand the most effective way in which PFA can launch the Smart Libraries prototype in Kibera, Kenya. Moreover, Carly and Rutendo have active roles in the planning stages of launching the library in the slums of Kibera.

During this past week, Carly, together with my PFA Co-Director Chyah Weitzman, and myself, held meetings with the 2018-19 school year’s PFA eighth grade leaders Ceci, Philip and Catalina.

PFA Leaders (Left to Right) Ceci, Philip and Catalina

Carly is a dedicated mentor to our new PFA Leaders, and is sharing with them how she considers Smart Libraries to be “a hand up, not a hand out”. Carly is CEO of Smart Library Bake Sales which will launch a global campaign of school bake sales to raise money for the library in Kibera.

Meantime, Rutendo has been a pioneer for this prototype project. In May, 2018, Rutendo traveled to Kibera, Kenya, on behalf of Pencils for Africa, to prospect for our prototype library there. As we move forward with the library development, we shall rely upon Rutendo’s research, as well as the extensive experience and expertise of our friend Chris Bradshaw, Founder of African Library Project.

Our eighth grade PFA Leader Philip is also the CEO of Kibera Club. Philip will seek advice and counsel from previous year PFA Leaders on how to support the launching of the Kibera library, which will open its doors on January 1st, 2020. Philip’s Kibera Club Board includes Rutendo, our PFA Board Chair Dr. Dapo Tomori, and fellow board members Paola Gianturco and Yema Khalif.

Together, the Kibera Club Board will work to create the “Smart Libraries Eco System” within which money is raised for the Kibera prototype library through four specific streams of revenue generation:

a. School Bakes Sales

b. Education Foundations

c. Music Benefit Concerts

d. Corporate Responsibility

We are all looking forward to the new school year with Pencils for Africa!

— Karim

Carly’s Interview with Rutendo


Carly’s question to Rutendo


How do you think Pencils for Africa’s Smart Library project in Kibera, Kenya, can most effectively act as a platform to give a hand up, not a hand out?

Rutendo’s response to Carly


The world is buzzing with the ideology of innovation and sustainability.

Over the years the United Nations and other global initiatives have come up with ways to end poverty and war. In this new era the key words are Innovation and Sustainability.

Although many scholars and theorists have come up with meanings of these words, there is still much to be required of them.

For example: Sustainability is defined in the Cambridge dictionary as “the ability to continue at a particular level for a period of time” or “the idea that goods and services should be produced in ways that do not use resources that cannot be replaced and that do not damage the environment”.

Innovation is defined in the same dictionary as “ a new idea or method, or the use of new ideas and methods”. Both these definition do not take into account indigenous knowledge systems.

Why is all of this important?

Children of Kibera (Photo by Sophia Ajania)

While I was in Kibera, I saw many different projects that tackled different aspects of people’s lives in the community: I saw “WASH” projects or Water and Sanitation projects; I saw school programs which, although these are doing great work in the community, they are not making poverty go away.

Some projects are not authentically, effectively improving the lives of the people. Sure, they can be said to be ‘sustainable’ projects, and some are ‘innovative’. But perhaps a little more is needed.

I am a firm believer in Education: not just any kind of education, but the education that keeps us wondering and keeps us curious; education that motivates us to want to learn, want to change, and want to grow. I believe that Smart Libraries, rightly placed and well managed, will be an authentic “hand up” for the people of Kibera – and in other places where books and reading are scarce.

How does this happen?

Well, truth be told, although there is not one ‘African culture’, there is one tradition that runs like a thread across all of Africa, which is Africa’s oral mentorship and oral storytelling tradition.

Slums of Kibera (Photo by Sophia Ajania)

Learning was encouraged through storytelling, and groups of women and men would, in the past, all sit and listen to a particular wise elder to learn about culture, healing remedies, arts and crafts.

As Smart Libraries will include the oral storytelling traditions of Africa, they will encourage people to read; they will make reading a community activity; and they will encourage personal initiative.

Do you know that one of the first universities in civilization was in Mali, Timbuktu, in North Africa?

Unfortunately, this university was bombed by rebel groups recently, who are against any curriculums of western education. It is a pity that not many Africna people know this. In the future there will be only sad remnants of the bombed structure of this 12th Century legacy of African Civilization.

Helping communities learn once more through books and stories in groups, will help to encourage communities to want to know more about the history of Africa, and where Africa is going.

Africa’s oldest university in Timbuktu, Mali, founded in 1193

Reading, gives one knowledge, and knowledge is power.

Most people perish because of lack of knowledge. Having access to knowledge gives people unforeseen opportunities. It somewhat reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, a fictional story about a little bored girl who follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole where she finds a whole new world she never thought existed. Many of us are like Alice, under a form of complacency and monotony in life.

A book, a story, is a rabbit hole, that we can fall into to discover a world we never thought existed.

Some books can cause us to shrink immeasurably, so we can reach the smaller things in life, while other books can make us grow immeasurably, so we can reach a greater vantage point.

Smart Libraries are definitely a hand up.

They will give communities access to an indigenous knowledge. They will not only be sustainable in name, or innovative in the strictest sense; they will be life transformative, and that is what we want: we want for people’s lives to be transformed into the best versions of what they aspire to become.