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How I fulfilled my dream of building a library for secondary school students in Maralal

As a young girl growing up in Nairobi, my favourite hours were those I spent in the McMillan Memorial Library, devouring books in the downstairs fiction section: two hours of sheer bliss, whilst my parents attended to their various errands and had coffee at the nearby Café Vienna (managed, incidentally, by my grandmother). Later, I found my way upstairs to the Africana section, and fell in love with all the treasures I found there. Then, at the Kenya High School, I found yet more treasures in the school’s well-endowed library. In short, I grew up with books as a vital part of my life, and learned how important they were to an ever-expanding mind.

Every child in Kenya should have access to books, yet, sadly, very few do. Their education is limited, and they are in that sense deprived. A few libraries have been set up in needy areas, but the idea has not caught on as a necessity to a forward-thrusting nation.

I decided to remedy the matter to a small degree, in my own small way. My contribution was to be far removed from Nairobi.

I was born in Kenya in 1942, to parents who had fled war-torn Eastern Europe. After a two-year, 7,500 mile saga, my father had finally been offered work in Kenya, at that time a British Colony. The British would not recognise his qualifications as a famous veterinary surgeon. Instead, he was put in charge of a factory at Athi River producing corned beef for the British army in Burma and North Africa.

By the time I was nine years old, he had moved up the ladder somewhat, and had been put in charge of the entire northern half of Kenya. At the time, this was a region of pastoralists and nomads, continuously harassed by Somali bandits: one had to check in with the Police Post at Isiolo before venturing further north. Only a mad maverick such as my father would have considered the job a fascinating one!

TOOK ME TO MONTHLY TOURS

My father decided to take me with him on one of his monthly tours of duty, and I was thus introduced to the Samburu people, a small tribe, of perhaps 100,000 people at that time, inhabiting a largely desolate area of roughly 8,000 square miles.

It seems I was the first white child they had ever encountered. Our curiosity was mutual. For me, it was far more than that: for me, it was love at first sight. I vowed to return as an adult.

By 1972, I had become a professional safari guide, specialising in Samburu culture. I was adopted into a family of blacksmiths, one of the last still following ancient traditions. Through them, I was invited to attend weddings, rituals and major ceremonies. I also met all the shamans, healers and spiritual leaders of the tribe. In 2000, I published a book about the Samburu, Talk to the Stars (out of print), and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in recognition of my exploration and research. My documentary film, Butterfly People, was launched at the Zanzibar Film Festival of 2006, and in 2014 was aired on MNET Africa television, throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2012, I was given a special Ambassador’s Medal by the outgoing American Ambassador to Kenya, Scott Gration.

I had attended the great circumcision ceremonies of 1990, and again in 2005. The elders have invited me to attend the next ceremony, scheduled for this August. My continuing involvement with the people is beyond question.

Samburu culture is on the decline due to external influences such as formal education, missionaries, and modern technology. In addition, devastating droughts and recurring tribal clashes have forced the Samburu to migrate southwards. Instead of following a traditional pastoralist way of life, many are now forced to become sedentary agriculturalists. This is seldom successful, due to climate change in their habitat. The population has increased to over 250,000:  they have clearly outgrown the confines of the district. They cannot graze their livestock to the north, because of desertification. If they migrate southwards, they run into privately-owned ranch land. Clashes on a different scale occur, with sometimes disastrous results, as we have recently witnessed. By the time I had completed my eighth book, inspiration was running dry and I needed another outlet for my creative talents.

Having spent over 40 years recording the slowly vanishing culture for posterity, I believed the only way I could help the Samburu go forward was via education. In 2016, deciding to put my money where my proverbial mouth had been for so many years, I searched the area around Maralal, the district capital, and made a commitment to help the Samburu Mixed Day Secondary School, on the outskirts of the township. I decided the school needed a library. The principal was enthusiastic, and we chose the site together.

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