As I write this, I’m simultaneously watching The Lion King. It is a movie detailing a heroic story about a beloved character witnessing the untimely death of a loved one only to set foot on the greatest search possible; the search for identity and purpose. Although the fictional title does not specifically identify where in Africa it is set, one could argue that it is based in Kenya, the land of “hakuna matata.” It is a Swahili phrase meaning no worries. No, this is not a movie review. But the events are based on a true story.
Long before I had decided to build a school for rural children, I had contemplated buying shipping containers and converting them to libraries for local learners. So I started to do research and came across Just Be A Child (JBAC). They are an organisation doing just that in Kenya. My dream evolved and inspired a new vision. However, I still wanted to partner with JBAC and perhaps visit them on location. That’s when I contacted Mme Lenka, the woman that started the charity whilst living in Britain.
Traditionally in South Africa, when speaking about someone older, out of respect, you would put Mme (mother) or Ntate (father) ahead of their name. Mme Lenka is especially harder to write about because she is a holder of a PhD degree and a professor. So in this article, I will be going back and forth between Mme, Prof and Dr Lenka. We exchanged countless emails about the implementation of my then plans. But as a former journalist, I wanted to know more. How did it come about that a woman from an entirely different continent would sit still long enough to hear the ancestors calling?
It is my belief that one does not simply decide to visit Africa, but one is summoned home by the people who once lived on the land, your tribe; the elders. Prof Lenka’s journey, like Simba the protagonist in the film, came about after much heartache. The purpose of the trip was grief and recuperation. But while there, she enjoyed the fruits of the soil but knew that the people from the land would never have the privilege of witnessing the beauty of their own country. Like me with gold in South Africa.
One thing that I have long admired about Mme Lenka, is her unwavering support of the community in which she intends to build a partnership with. Far too many charities come to Africa to help the locals, implementing projects without effective communication, taking pictures, then returning home leaving us with these foreign objects on the land we once roamed freely on. I love that prior to setting up a library, JBAC builds a playground for children and monitors the community’s engagement in their project. That’s very important!
In the same way that Simba found Simon and Pumbaa whilst discovering new terrain, Dr Lenka attracted her tribe full of people; from the members of the Saturday Club collecting and packing donations (my area of expertise), the container shipping crew (well over 30 members), to Ann teaching arts and crafts in Kenya on Saturdays. JBAC also secured a partnership with a shipping and removal company; Dollimore and Christie. What a team!
It is evident that the community trusts this resilient and fierce group of people. They assist, where possible, from the unloading of the container to the cosmetic transformation. As a child you dream of leaving your mark, then JBAC presents you with an opportunity to colour the face of change, design the door of hope and open the window of opportunity known simply as the library. To place your painted hand, your print, even momentarily against the shipping container, signifies the conclusion of a contract, leaving you determined to succeed and conditioned to excel.
Countless milestones have been reached, from sending over 30 000 books to the recent Malalani library, to assembling an entire playground in no less than four hours, supporting local librarians to set up businesses and teaching young boys and girls to become community teachers. It is clear that JBAC has hit their stride. But within that framework, set backs are evident. Ongoing issues with customs, weather related hiccups to delivery delays well over two weeks pushing back schedules and increasing running costs.
Prof Lenka had hoped that each child could experience the joy of being lost in a world of excellent writing, that know occurs repeatedly at the Dzunga, Chidzangani and Malalani libraries. I am in awe of your achievements. The Rural child was able to send some pencils over, but the environment remains in dire straits. In The Lion King the pride looks to Simba to take his rightful place on the throne, but this community is not in need of a single hero, but a generation of change agents.
As I conclude this article, I found it deeply ironic of how the movie places a deep emphasis on Simba as the beacon of hope whilst JBAC now looks in the direction of Shimba Hills as the home of its new library. Mme Lenka may not have known while on the flight back to the UK that the charity’s name will transcend to all aspects of everyday life. In a world full of heartache and trauma, perhaps the best thing to do is Just Be A Child, hakuna matata and let your mind disappear in a book.