Digital Life: Kenya - reflections on our first visit

In her introduction post, Emily gave some background on the 12 month Digital Life: Kenya pilot Good Things Foundation is embarking on, working with Kenya National Library Service (knls) to support people  to improve their lives through digital. It’s been a few weeks since Emily and I returned from our visit  so this is a good time to look back on how it went...

In this post I’m going to highlight some of what I found fascinating, interesting and memorable. There were so many highlights it would be easy to write pages about them all, instead here’s a few words about things that stood out…


The whole visit was a something of a sensory overload. From the moment we stepped off the plane at Nairobi airport - the things we saw whilst ‘on the road’, the people we met, the animals (“Look - Zebra!”) - to boarding the return plane, was a wealth of new experiences. 

Firstly, everyone involved with our visit was polite, generous and helpful; knls were gracious hosts throughout. They’d arranged all the library visits we’d hoped for and even managed to fit in a couple of extra visits ‘en route’. Thanks to them we saw and learnt about much more of rural Kenya that we could ever have hoped to see otherwise. 

Mirror, signal, manoeuvre 

Talking of travel, the ‘rules of the road’ in Kenya didn’t seem exactly like the Highway Code we’re used to. Almost any rule you can think of seemed like more like a ‘suggestion’ to most road users. The most unpredictable being the matatu (bus) drivers who would insert their often overpacked vehicles into the most unlikely spaces at improbable angles, usually at speed. The fact that we weren't involved in an incident (we saw the aftermath of several) was thanks to the excellent skills and calm demeanor of our knls driver. 

Building the future

img_0057.pngThe new knls library in Nairobi is still under construction and will be a very impressive building when it’s complete. It was fascinating to have a guided tour of the building site and imagine how it will look when finished. 

One of the functions of the main library is to receive, process and distribute books to the other libraries in the network. It was impressive to see several large piles of boxes of books, all waiting to be categorised, recorded and assigned. 

I got the feeling that Kenya is a country that doesn’t waste much. In the UK, old, books with tatty covers might be discarded or sent to be pulped. In contrast, we saw a dedicated ‘gluing and binding’ room; it was the job of three men to restore old books  by the process of stripping the old covers and gluing the pages into new bindings, extending the life of the books and preserving them for future readers. It was a simple but inspiring process.

More than just a job

Each of the libraries we visited seemed to have it’s own personality. We discovered that the librarians saw their role as more than just people who work in a library. They care about the people in their community and they work hard to enrich these people's’ lives as best they can. 

During a visit to GilGil library we were chatting with the head librarian, Joseph, when a young boy came in and presented us a drawing of our that jeep he’d done. Joseph kindly gave him a few shillings and praised his work - a small but powerful example of providing encouragement and recognising young talent that might otherwise go unnoticed and unrewarded.

Learning together

Learning together at Digital Like:KenyaThe training event we lead was as much an opportunity for us to learn as for the 20 librarians who attended. The librarians were very attentive, absorbing everything with enthusiasm and commitment over the two days. Finding out that the two librarians from Moyale Library (very close to the border with Ethiopia) had travelled for 2 days, almost 1000 km, by bus for the training was another “wow” moment. 

It was the first session I’ve delivered that included prayers from the delegates; a Christian prayer at the start and a Muslim prayer at the end. Everyone, regardless of faith, respected and shared in the prayers. 

At the end of the training several of the librarians asked if they could take selfies with me! Another new experience. It was like being famous, even if just for a few minutes.  

Standing out in a crowd 

Younger people were a common theme at the libraries. At Kangema there was a large group of young people from The National Youth Service outside. Emily and I seemed pretty conspicuous as the only white people in sight and we were definitely the focus of their interest. 

I thought it was surreal when one of them reached out to touch Emily’s hair. That was surpassed a moment later when I noticed a hand that had appeared from behind me to feel my beard! It seems that ‘big hair’ and long beards aren’t common in Kenya. 
The youths were very also excited about having their photo taken. 

dsc_8771_1.pngOne boy asked Emily if he could touch her iPhone, when she handed it over he held it aloft like a trophy, asking his friends to take a photo of him with it. More than anything that brought it home to us that items that we take for granted are so far out of reach of many people in Kenya that even seeing one was a major event. It was one of many humbling events that week. 

In another library, 5 hours out of Nairobi, there were many even younger children. Once again Emily and I were the focus of fascination. Caroline, our knls host, informed us that we were the first white people they’d ever seen. It’s hard to process something like that. 

Only in Kenya

Finally, I can’t talk of Kenya without mentioning of the animals. It was stunning seeing monkeys and zebras along the side of the road. It prepared us only a little for when we visited the Nairobi National Park, which was fantastic. It was wonderful to see all the animals going about their business, and we were fortunate to see lions, which apparently isn’t guaranteed. That visit wasn’t really part of the pilot but since Richard, Director knls, was our excellent driver/guide/host I think it counts. It was also an amazing way to round off our trip... 


We’ll be keeping in touch with knls and the librarians over the coming weeks and hope to return later in the year to catch-up with some of our new friends. Until then you can find out more about our experiences, thoughts and findings on Digital Life: Kenya on our tumblr blog