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  • Writer's pictureJohn Hockenberry

The Secret Is Out in Frankfurt: An Oliveseed Grows in Africa

Yes, we all look alike! Thank you so much to our guest author, John Hockenberry.

by John Hockenberry

This year’s Frankfurt Book Fair has got me thinking of writing a comic book or a graphic novel. How does this sound. Meet a tall Maasai warrior named Amos with a big smile and the intensity of a man who was forged in the furnace of African sun, around lions, hyenas, and elephants. Next to him is a small woman named Barbara with an arresting head of red hair that can quiet a large room and whose eyes beam with an intensity that comes from decades of winning battles designing software in the cutthroat world of Silicon Valley California. These two are inseparable and unstoppable, and together they roam across Africa bringing peace and prosperity to some of the continent’s most remote and isolated communities. They collect and tell stories and have assembled an army of young people clutching and handing out colorful books full of ancient wisdom and modern hope dedicated to saving planet earth before it’s too late.

Sound like a great book? Well, it’s an even better real-life story of Barbara Mackraz of Palo Alto California and Amos Kipeen from Kenya’s Maasai Mara. They are founder of Oliveseed Foundation and co-founders of Oliveseed Kenya Trust, which is part philanthropic development mission, part literacy program, and part environmental movement marshaling the wisdom of indigenous communities to find local strategies for living in harmony with the earth.

Oliveseed has been around for nearly a decade, but this year it has broken out from being one of the best kept secrets in the NGO world to getting a coveted invitation to showcase its work at Frankfurt’s Book Fair, as guests of Africa Publishing Innovation Fund. Barb and Amos are eloquent powerful presenters who have attracted crowds of listeners and hard workers in Kenya and Morocco, to build libraries, upgrade education by bringing solar lights to enthusiastic young learners, and transform communities wherever they have worked. In Frankfurt they are explaining the success of their grassroots and pilot-driven development model which stresses locally based learning and locally designed entrepreneurship to bring unheard voices into the worldwide conversation about climate change.

The Frankfurt International Book Fair is the largest event in the world devoted to publishing, books, literature, and the ancient tradition of the written word. It is Cannes and Sundance and the Olympics rolled into one. It is an event where once a year for a week the fabled Tower of Babel, a symbol of the anxiety of multiple languages and humanity’s divisions, becomes the cathedral of global understanding. Oh, and bring a large bag because it's also the best bookstore in the solar system and as far as we know, the galaxy (but you can find books on the likelihood of other readers in our galaxy here in Frankfurt as well as every other subject and genre).

Nestled into the thousands of big-name exhibitors and publishers is a small table where Barb and Amos sit and complete each other’s sentences with the timing of a comedy team and the intensity of the filmmaking Coen brothers. Their big message about the power of books to fill Frankfurt’s cathedral of understanding with hope is on the MainStage at this year’s fair. One of the stories is how this year the Oliveseed team with Barb and Amos’s rolled-up sleeves built and solar-equipped a small building to be a library in a Manyatta village. Manyattas are small, isolated but close knit communities in the Maasai Mara made of earthen homes cut off from power and communications. In this Manyatta, a few days after the opening of the brightly painted and fabric-trimmed building Barb and Amos came back at night to get pictures when they figured the building would be empty. Instead the green box cabin glowed from within, and inside Barb and Amos found it full of eager children reading out loud to themselves in English late at night. Word traveled fast in the Mara, and now Amos says every Manyatta wants its own library dedicated to literacy, empowerment, and environmental stewardship.

Oliveseed has had a huge impact with a tiny staff, a small loyal group of donors, institutional support from Rotary, Kiwanis, IEEE, and the U.S. Embassy in Morocco, but it is at a growth point where it needs critical support and a more reliable donor pipeline. "These are good problems to have, but it’s still a huge effort to be fundraising all the time when there is so much great work to do on the ground,” says Barb. Amos, more than a foot taller than Barb, enthusiastically shows maps and diagrams of a planned women’s manufacturing center for local crafts and milk distribution. Barb shows off the books they have published of young people’s stories that have evolved into a national-scale short story competition in Morocco.

It’s hard to put a finger on their collaboration, but they are an unusual team. A visitor to the table politely asks how they learned to work together being so different, and Barb quickly jumps in “We aren’t so different. I always feel that I blend in when I’m in Kenya.” Amos chuckles as he watches the visitors look at the pictures where it's easy to find the one fair-skinned petite red-haired woman in each group shot. “We never have time to think about the differences,” Amos says. “You know, I always say that in the Mara like in the world we all look alike. Can you prove me wrong.” They all laugh around the table. Outside the Oliveseed booth, the sound spills out into the walkways passing other exhibitors. I can’t help imagining titles and comic books again.

“That’s a good one,” I think. “Can You Prove Me Wrong, We All Look Alike.” Oliveseed may have written the first hymn for Frankfurt’s Cathedral. Not bad and it's clear from the leadership of Barbara Mackraz and Amos Kipeen at Oliveseed, there’s way more of that to come. The secret is out.


About the Author

John Hockenberry is a veteran journalist and author living in the U.S. He currently consults on strategy and communications for national and international clients. His book Moving Violations is a chronicle of his years as a reporter in a wheelchair in hotspots around the globe, including extensive reporting in Africa. John is a recipient of three Emmy awards and two Peabody awards, and as a journalist with National Public Radio, in 2017 had a radio audience of 2 million listeners.


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