A Library for a Manyatta
Sometimes the smallest turns out to be the biggest! This is the story of how the little Manyatta Library came together one year ago, in the Maasai village of Ololchura.
by Barb Mackraz
After developing libraries at public schools in the Maasai Mara, Amos and I had an idea... What if we put a little library inside a traditional Maasai village, a manyatta, just steps away from where people live? Why not bring the library to the people, instead of the other way around? Kids could read, study, and congregate any time of day. Families in these manyattas live in earthen huts without power or light, so this would also be the only lit building in its village, providing a space for positive nighttime activities. Would anyone come?
This was an experiment that, as far as we knew, had not been done before in one of these villages. To make a long story short, the Manyatta Library was immediately popular beyond our wildest dreams. This little green building has been full of children reading and learning since the day it opened — and now even has morning and evening preschool classes for the youngest ones. This is a first for a Maasai manyatta, and it goes to show the passion for learning in this community.
Now, one year later, the library has even become a community center, with elders running village affairs here and sharing indigenous knowledge with the next generation. Soon to come, storytelling nights and screening of wildlife videos.
We chose the village of Ololchura south of Talek for this project. Like other manyattas, the dozen or so earthen homes here are arranged in a circle around a pen where the cattle are kept at night, safely away from lions and other predators. The whole manyatta is surrounded by a fence made of acacia branches with thorns.
So, we proposed the idea to the Ololchura community in April 2022, and they embraced it! The elder gave us his blessing and a cherished spot next to the pen where goats and sheep are kept at night. Next thing we knew, we were having a groundbreaking, with the whole village coming together to bless the project.
It's amazing how little it takes to make positive change in this world, when you meet people at their needs and keep it straightforward and appropriate. In a matter of weeks, we built the little library out of materials readily available: a wood frame and green iron sheets, with concrete floors — and curtains sewn out of the red shukas that Maasai men wear. We installed a small plug-and-play solar system on the roof, which was enough to power 3 indoor lights, 1 outdoor one, and 2 USB ports. The building has two rooms on the inside: a big room for reading and a smaller one for storage of books, art supplies, portable solar lights, and every thing else we came up with for a fun reading and gathering space.
As the builders and painters did their work, kids were there every day to watch.
Finally in May 2022, we were ready for an opening! 100s of people came together from surrounding villages and from as far away as Nairobi. Students dressed up in their school clothes for the ceremony and had fun with the books and the portable solar lights we had supplied for them to take home with a book. We had filled the library with storybooks in English and Kiswahili, children's picture books, art supplies, and curriculum enhancement texts for every subject and level.
Three nights after opening, Amos and I went back at 9 pm to take photos of the solar lights in the darkness, as we had promised our solar vendors. We didn't expect anyone to be there. But to our surprise, as we reached the building we saw the red curtains aglow and heard murmuring voices; and when we opened the door, we found the room full of children reading. Already! I still melt when I think about the moment we walked into that room. Children were everywhere, filling every seat and every spot on the floor.
I picked up my phone as Amos talked, and we made this short impromptu video of what we witnessed that night.
Now, the Manyatta Library is a beehive, full of students after school and in the evenings — and with the village's youngest ones in preschool classes. Amos and I are so grateful to Andrew Nkongoni, resident of Ololchura, who manages this library, runs the preschool classes, and has shaped this into the education center it is today.
Imagine that this was a setting with no books, learning resources, or lights not long ago, and now it's like a garden. To my mind, there's something special about this little library, as it's so simple and effective. The community has made this its own.
We're continuing to add to this Manyatta Library today with more books and materials, and we hope to build a second one in summer 2023, at a village with as much need and enthusiasm as Ololchura.