There is no community that lacks the resources required to solve its own problems,” said one of Cyril Otieno’s tutors in 2013. By then, the 26-year-old was studying Community Development at Regional Institute of Business in Nairobi. Cyril is the founder of a library in Lucky Summer, Nairobi County, which prides itself as being the smallest in Africa.
“I was brought up in Mugure, an informal settlement in Nairobi. I remember playing many games in my neighbourhood during my childhood, but I also endured many challenges. I went to schools that did not have adequate resources. My classmates and I had to scramble for things like books.
Growing up, Cyril lived in a one-roomed house with his parents and three siblings. He is the third born.
“I could be reading or working on my assignments in one corner of the room, while my sister is either washing utensils or having a conversation with my mother on the other corner. The noise would sometimes distract me from my studies,” he says and adds:
“While in Class Seven, it dawned on me that education has the power to expose us to the entire world. I started questioning many things, for instance, how come we could not afford a television set like some of my classmates? Why could we not afford three meals? I figured that education was the answer to all these questions. My parents had missed out on this privilege.
I decided to change the situation not just for me, but for other children as well. But I was disadvantaged in terms of resources.
After completing his studies in 2014, Cyril vowed to be part of the change he so badly desired. On two occasions, he made an observation that changed the course of his life.
“I realised that children played in open playfields during the day, and these fields were left unused at night. Remember that in the slums, insecurity and drug abuse are rife.
Watching the children play, Cyril remembered the words of his lecturer and thought, “why not start a library here?
But he was still looking for a job, and building a library seemed impossible. I shared the idea with my mother, who always supports me and welcomes my ideas. She gave me four jerrycans, including her favourite one. One of my sisters gave me a table she had at her shop. With the little money I had saved from my side hustle as a garbage collector, I bought two plastic chairs, and two rechargeable lamps. With that, Africa’s smallest library was born.
But the naysayers didn’t take long to emerge. “Seriously, this is absurd!” “Have you ever seen such a thing before?” they asked. Cyril did not listen to their discouraging remarks.
“When I opened the library, nobody showed up for three days. Then four learners came, and gradually the numbers kept increasing. As more and more people came to the library, I started to receive support from the community. Some donated money to purchase books, others asked me to collect plastic chairs from them and so on. They owned the project.
“Currently, the library is located in a rented house which has been partitioned into three rooms. We pay Sh3,500 for each room. Users, who are mostly school going children, come in at any time between 10am and 8.30pm. We open six days a week.
“We moved there in 2017 because the number of enthusiastic learners kept growing. I now work with six volunteers. We have so far received a lot of support from the community and well-wishers,” he says.
The library was a huge blessing to children who could not go to school.
“We realised that even though education was free in public primary schools, some parents could not afford other necessities such as stationery and uniform. Through various partnerships, we are currently seeing 30 children through school.
Cyril says that he learns a lot every day from the people he meets. One of his friends once told him that: “Hardships cannot stand opportunities.” These words, he says, are his guiding light.
“To ensure wholesome growth of the children, we have introduced games such as chess and moulding. We hope that in the near future, we will manage to incorporate digital learning, and start an enterprise to meet the various expenses such as the Sh20,000 rent,” he says.
Apart from volunteering at the library, Cyril also works part time as an online writer.
“A few days ago, I was walking past a group of preteens and one of them whispered to the others, “that’s the library guy”. Such words don’t bring me pride. They give me satisfaction and the reassurance that I am leaving a good legacy. I hope that one day we will open similar facilities in other slums.
Living his childhood dreams has opened many doors for Cyril. He is an alumni of the Young African Leadership Initiatives (YALI).
“We have a responsibility to develop our communities. Where there are gaps, let us step up and fill them. There is no community that lacks resources to solve its own problems,” he says.