Philip Thiuri and his wife, Bernadette, both received their tertiary education in the United States of America where they have also worked most of their lives.
Now retired they have returned home, and knowing the importance of knowledge are establishing libraries and reading centres in rural areas, where education standards are most wanting.
On a crisp sunny December day, we visit one of the Rural Reading Centre’s in Mairi, Kangari in Murang’a County. The picturesque village, surrounded by lush manicured tea plantations looks like a perfect place to have a learning institution, as indeed Njiiri’s High School is in the neighbourhood.
The Centre is perched on a hilly area, appearing to a casual observer as just an ordinary house. But on coming inside, as a book lover, you involuntarily take in air. The unmistakable woody smell of books invites you to the neatly arranged shelves of volumes, catalogued according to topics and genre.
There is a children’s section with books ranging from Kenya’s syllabus, to leisure reading materials like the Disney’s Wonderful World of Knowledge.
In the adult section are books on mathematics, pure science, novels and nonfictions documenting historical events.
Indeed, the books in the library are mostly sourced from the US, where the Thiuri’s lived most of their lives. Philip confesses to being a bookworm, though Bernadette says growing up, she was more into music.
“I used to collect music records while Philip collected books and I was slowly won over.” A few years back, they took a break from their respective jobs in New Jersey for a holiday in Kenya. It was during the December holidays, and when characteristically the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education results were released after Christmas, they listened in horror.
“There was a great discrepancy between the rural public schools with their urban counterparts,” remembers Philip, “the best performing schools and pupils were from the urban areas.”
“We feared that the gap will dangerous reflect in the lifetimes of the two groups,” adds Bernadette.
STARTING READING CENTRES
Back in America, Philip looked at his collection of books, and the germ of starting reading centres in the rural enclaves started forming in their minds.
Perhaps to Philip, he felt compelled to pay back, as many years back; a man named Tom Mboya had visited America seeking scholarships for Kenyan and African students. In 1962, Philip was on a chartered flight aboard the now famed Kennedy Airlifts courtesy of Mboya.
Philip would study to the doctoral level, living and teaching at American Universities, but for a stint between 1979, when he returned to Kenya, taught at Kenyatta University besides working with Amref, and 1991 when he went back to America. Bernadette also studied in America, and has Masters Degrees in public health and nutrition.
She returned to Kenya in 2004, when she got a job with Strathmore University, to lay structures for the Centre for Tourism and Hospitality.
Well, after deciding to start reading centres in rural Kenya, which will grow into libraries with time, the couple turned to sourcing for the books.
“We lived in the town of West Milford in New Jersey,” says Philip, “every Tuesday would be a day when people discarded things they don’t need. We would drive around collecting books.”
Then they teamed with like-minded people, like Kamau Shabaka, a Jamaican with a soft-spot for Kenya. Shabaka was a lecturer at the William Paterson University, where Philip was a professor of Geography and Urban Studies.
Shabaka later moved to the United Kingdom, and with his students at the Cardinal Pole Catholic School in London, had a book drive and a fundraiser, the result, 3000 books which he brought with him to Kenya recently.
OPENED SEVERAL CENTRES
From the US, since the beginning of the Rural Readings Centres Africa project seven years ago, the Thiuri’s have shipped in six containers of books.
They have opened several centres, including Mairi in Murang’a; Othaya, Kathiani in Machakos, Giampampo in Tharaka Nithi, Borabu in Kisii and recently in Kijabe and Eldoret.
“We take time before establishing a centre,” explains Bernadette, “first we get a lead person from a particular community, who is a book lover, and interested in giving back.”
Together with the lead person, they sensitize the community which then works together to register the reading centre, source for facilities and find means of paying a library clerk on a half-day basis.
“Ours is to source for the books, and monitor the progress of the people on the ground. Up until now, we have mainly funded the project from our own pocket,” she adds.
The process, from identifying a lead person to establishing the reading centre, takes up to two years, which explains why they have two containers full of books at their Lang'ata home yet to be given out. Thus, the Thiuri’s keep on searching for people interested and ready to start the centres in their rural homes.
On the lack of reading culture evident even from the underuse of the Murang’a reading centre and which the Thiuri’s ultimately want to nurture, Philip says: “Kenya needs people who can think for self during the shift from industrialisation to knowledge economy. Knowledge does not rain on you; you have to go out and get it.”
Well, looking directly at the Mairi Shopping Centre from the Reading Centre, you can’t help but wonder if people milling around are aware of the knowledge neatly packed in shelves nearby.