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Pop-Up Libraries Promote Reading in Kenyan Slum

Betty Mutua, founder of Sauti ya Vitabu, looks on as children read books at one of the organization's pop-up centers. (R. Ombuor/VOA)

Schools in Kenya are out for a holiday, but a group of 10 volunteers in Mathare, one of Nairobi's most dangerous slums, is encouraging children to come to pop-up centers to read donated storybooks. The goal of the program, called Sauti ya Vitabu, which is Swahili for Voice of the Books, is to get children to dream big and broaden their minds.

Betty Mutua and a group of friends started Sauti ya Vitabu to help schoolchildren in Mathare improve their learning and broaden their minds through books.

What started as a visit to a slum by a group of university postgraduate students led to the creation of mobile pop up-libraries that opens their doors to more than 30 children on Saturdays and school holidays.

Mutua and her friends wanted to expose the youngsters to a world far different from what they were used to experiencing.

"I thought books are the most interesting; they give you a journey; you play parts,” she said. “When you read a book, you are playing a part. It's like you are inside. I love reading books. When I read a book I always think I am the girl in that book. I just picture myself. It takes you so far. Even if you have never been to Paris, you will really think you are in Paris with that book."

In January, volunteers collected books, carried them into Mathare and set up the first library in a church hall.

Since then the reading sessions have been packed.

Sauti ya Vitabu relies on donations of books from well-wishers.

With the number of readers growing, the volunteers hope that they can find a more permanent structure for their library and help more kids advance their education.

School children on holiday enjoy reading books at a Sauti ya Vitabu center in Kenya's Mathare Slum. (R. Ombuor/VOA)
School children on holiday enjoy reading books at a Sauti ya Vitabu center in Kenya's Mathare Slum. (R. Ombuor/VOA)

Right now, with only a small number of books on hand, sometimes one book is shared between two children.

The volunteers select books that the children can relate to, such as books that touch on slum life and what the kids are likely to go through in the slums.

The book that they are currently reading is One Last Chance. The setting is in Huruma, also a Kenya slum. The lead character is a young girl who is raped on her way to school to pick up her grades.

The girl, Waridi, is determined to go to high school despite the resulting unplanned pregnancy. She approaches various schools but none is willing to admit her.

In the last chapter, Waridi finally has her baby, goes to school and eventually, graduates with a law degree.

Before joining Sauti ya Vitabu, Abraham Omondi was a poor reader. Ten months into the program, he is able to read with little help from the volunteers. The 10-year-old clearly understands the lesson Waridi’s story has for young boys and girls facing hardship.

"One more chance means that even if you are poor and you do not have courage, never give up,” he said. “You never know how close you are."