It is a bristling hot day on a late February afternoon at Mandera Secondary School in Mandera town in the extreme Kenyan north. Students sit in the shade of the spare acacia in the school compound.
They listen in rapped attention as the speaker, Sahara Abdi, walks among the crowd. Sahara is the founder of Northern Voice Trust — an organisation that seeks to promote literacy levels as well as engender a reading culture in Mandera, her birth county.
The interaction is more dialogue than speech; big sister to siblings rather than a stiff academic lecture. The occasion is the second edition of the Mandera Book Festival — an annual event where select schools in Mandera receive books donated by well-wishers.
INSPIRE YOUNG PEOPLE
Through Northern Voice Trust, Sahara hopes to inspire young people with the magic she discovered as a young girl; the magic of books, words, imagery, art. And while at it, help reshape reactionary customs that have stymied the dreams of young people — especially girls; FGM, early marriages.
Sahara grew up surrounded by books. Almost without fail, her father would return home each evening with the day’s newspaper.
As a child growing up in Bulla Jamhuria in Mandera town, she found the pictures in the newspapers and magazines stocked in her father’s bookshelves magical.
“I was in Standard (Grade) 5 when I first read A Man of the People and The River and the Source,” she says. “I didn’t quite understand everything (in the books) but they enhanced my composition writing skills and improved my reading.”
It was a time of discovery and wonder. As she grew up and her scope broadened, the library, at school and at home, revealed certain truths: heroes and villains; hope and despair; man’s attempt to understand the universe.
And though Sahara couldn’t have fathomed it at the time, this early exposure to books and the literary world would later guide her course, become her True North. Books, she realised, were a power unto themselves.
Northern Voice Trust sprouted from a book club Sahara spearheaded in Mandera town. What started as a hobby with a handful of people has burgeoned into a movement. Sahara was only 25 years old when she quit formal employment.
It must have appeared preposterous, even reckless, to many people, considering the number of young people attempting to get into the workforce each year.
But then the world had always appeared to Sahara in special hues, no doubt shaped by her upbringing. There was more to life than the 8am-5pm drill. It helped that in the course of her education, she had lived in different places in the country: Mandera, Nakuru and Kiambu.
So it was that at the ripe old age of 25, the stirrings in her soul, the sounds calling her back home drowned out any corporate dreams she might have held.
DIFFERENT WORLD VIEW
“The mission of Northern Voice Trust is to create a community of readers and raise them. I started it as a book club in Mandera and was overwhelmed by the numbers of children who wanted to read (but couldn’t gain access to books),” she says. “I hoped to reach out to the larger community to help me raise the community of readers.”
“Growing up a Muslim in Mandera wasn’t a peculiar thing until I moved to secondary school away from home,” she narrates. “It was a culture shock, especially when my schoolmates learnt that I’m from Mandera. Many of them had an opinion, mostly negative, about Northern Kenya — there was a certain stereotype.”
“I think the fact that I also spoke as well as they did was a shocking thing to them. Those experiences would make me sad,” she says, adding, “but this formed my resolve to change the narrative in my birthplace from a young age.”
Northern Voice Trust has two ongoing projects. One is dubbed Project I Read. The children read out loud, a method that has demonstratively helped boost the children’s confidence and improve their reading skills.
“We have another project named Maktaba Vijijini, a mobile library programme that takes books to far-flung villages and townships in Mandera. We give books to a school for a term and they exchange with neighbouring schools,” Sahara explains.
She recently launched her first book, a children’s read titled Araweelo. It is based on a legendary figure in Somali folklore named Caraweelo, a countess who established a reign of women rulers that lasted centuries. The Araweelo of this story is a young proud girl rooted in her community’s ways of life.
Mandera can be an unforgiving land, prone to drought and inter-clan clashes. The narrative is a common staple in the media. But there is more to it than this.
“The message I want to pass is simple. This book is a story of representation for the children of the north; for them to see names of places they can relate with their own names, food, clothes, their identity,” Sahara says. She adds that proceeds from the sale of the books will be a source of funds for her organisation. “My (ultimate) dream is to build a resource centre for children and stock it with reading material,” says the mother of a four-year old daughter.