This is the story of Cyril Peter Otieno, a visionary who saw an idea where hope seemed lost. With love and passion for education, Peter saw the need to fill the education gap in his community so that the younger generation won’t suffer like he did. Born and bred in Kenya’s Mugure slums in Baba Dogo-Nairobi in a family of six: two sisters and a brother, Peter always aspired to make a difference in the community. Growing up in the slums, he wanted to be a politician.
“The library idea started growing in me when I reached high school because during those days it was hard to get a conducive space to sit down, read and do assignments. The public schools to date, still share books on a ratio of 1 book to 4 students. It was very frustrating when the teacher gave us assignments. It was a war deciding who would go back home with the book. So I used to walk about six Kilometers to the nearest library. I would always wish for a library to be near home.”
While growing up, there was no electricity connection in their household; Peter would therefore read under a large street light set up by the government to reduce cases of insecurity in the slums. The locals called it ‘Mulika Mwizi’, to mean illuminate a thief.
The library idea came to Peter when he one day went out to fetch water, on his way back he noticed the Mulika Mwizi illuminating a field. He was filled with nostalgia, a look back in his high school days and thought how he could best utilize it. To create learning grounds, bringing the community children together to tackle one of the main problems in the slums; access to books.
Peter quickly acted upon the idea and bought thin logs, cut them into four pieces to mark the library corner boundaries. He then mounted the logs in jericans to provide support for them, two jericans from his mom and bought the other two. The idea was to make a tent like structure.
“I tried this twice but each time the wind would bring it down. After many attempts I decided to do away with the tent. And so we were roofless but could still study.”
With just 500KShs to his name, Peter started the library on 6th August 2014
“I only had four plastic chairs when I started. So the library could only accommodate four people.”
“Because of increasing demand from more students, some improvised there sitting space to sit on stones. Others bring their own chairs from home. We can now accommodate 35-40 students every day.”
He started with some few books he owned. Friends who had seen his vision and believed in Peter and the community donated books they were no longer using. With a few hand me downs, Peter had started a great project that would benefit many.
“At the moment there are a number of donated books from well-wishers but since there’s not much space, the books are stored elsewhere.”
The library goes beyond books, Peter and his colleagues use it as a mobilizing tool to engage and educate children about challenges the community faces. Through Yaudi, Peter is able to achieve this. Yaudi is a community based organization registered by Peter and his friends, a community that The Smallest Library in Africa is part of.
“We have a program every Friday called Inspirational Friday where we pick topics and discuss about them from climate change to drugs etc. Through that we try and spark inspiration and a positive behavioral change.”
“I’ve come to learn that every stage in life has a purpose, because the owner of the land where we have our library right now used to be our landlord growing up. I grew up right on the land where the library is. The houses got demolished by the owner, years later, who had plans to build a modern rental house.”
Peter grew up on the same piece of the land where the Smallest Library in Africa is located, on the land where Peter inspires the young to get an education and strive no matter what the conditions are at the moment. The landowner who’s a good friend of Peter allowed him to use his grounds once he heard of Peter’s astounding idea.
“It was adventurous growing up here; we didn’t have buildings all over. All this was covered with bushes, we used to chase down squirrels and hunt grasshoppers.”
The makeshift library operates for a few hours in the evening due to lack of proper infrastructure and security
“The reason we operate from 5pm to 8:30pm is because we operate in an open field and lack a proper structure and shelter. Rainy days means no library. We also close early because of the security”
Peter’s dream is to one day acquire land and build a library, a permanent structure. No child should miss out on reading just because of slight showers or the scorching sun high up in the afternoon.
“The initial vision was to have a permanent structure, but funds couldn’t allow and so I resorted to use whatever it is I had at that moment to start my journey to my dream. It’s expensive to have a permanent structure but benefits of having a resource centre in the community are very high. I think my community deserves it because if you have an informed community, you have a developing community. I believe that Information and development go parallel. We’re looking forward to that one day where we’ll sit down and celebrate that our dream has happened”
“The library idea is bigger than me, even when I’m gone or my entire generation is gone, the following generation will take over.”