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February 17, 2019

Village girl's dream to bring a library hometo Kwale

Dr Esther Ngumbi.
Dr Esther Ngumbi.

Esther Ngumbi was in a fix at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, USA. She had kilograms of books that were supposed to go to Kwale to fill a new community library that had been built.

“To get the books, I walked into every department at Auburn University to collect them. I was determined to take them to Kenya come rain come sunshine,” she said.

Her baggage had exceeded the limit set by the airline and she didn’t have enough funds to pay for the extra weight.

“They told me I had 40 pounds (18kgs) excess” Esther said. First she panicked, not knowing how she would manoeuvre out of that tight spot. Luckily, she got assistance from the unlikeliest of heroes, her fellow passengers who allowed her to use their excess baggage to shuttle the books home.

Ngumbi PhD, entomologist at Auburn University had always had a passion for the written word. She had gotten the assistance of a photographer Edwin Santiago, in the form of a $10,000 donation which went towards realising her dream of putting up a library in her community.

As a young girl, Esther lived in the village of Mabafweni, Kwale, with her parents and four siblings. She spent her days trekking to and from school, going to the farm, and performing duties typically set aside for women- fetching water, firewood and cooking for the family. Hers was a humble beginning.

Although poverty made life difficult for the family, inspiration was never lacking. Being the daughter of retired teachers Harrison and Bertha Ngumbi, Esther had the importance of education instilled in her from a young age. Esther watched her parents take the ferry to Mombasa, braving the scorching sun, to collect their pay checks. The couple spared every cent of their meagre teachers’ salaries, ignoring the day’s hunger pangs, to make sure their children stayed in school. It was their dream to have a professor in the family.

Her parents’ determination was Esther’s greatest source of inspiration. It pushed her in her career, making her the first female PhD holder in the community. After pursuing her own education in the country and then abroad, Esther returned home to give back to the community she loves. In 2011 she and her parents, started a primary school, Faulu Academy in her home town Ukunda. The school needed a library and Esther was going to build it.

While attending a Clinton Global University Initiative meeting, she met photographer Edwin Santiago, to whom she told of her dream to build a library in Mabafweni. It never crossed her mind that he would be the first major for the mission. The envelope was labeled ‘Dream’ and in it was a check of $10,000. With these funds in hand, plans were drawn and the project began.

Esther’s story brought more like minded people together and the movement grew. Donations in cash and materials trickled in. With each brick laid on top of another, the dream moved closer to reality. In October, Kwale County will officially open the doors to its very first community library. Ella and Aiden’s Library, named after its major donors, covers 105 square metres and will serve the 22,000 dwellers of Mabafweni Village.

“Whoever wants to come and quench the thirst for knowledge will be welcomed,” said Esther. Under the leadership of Esther’s father, the library will be a much needed resource centre for the curious minds in the small community.

The kilograms of books that Esther lugged from the rooms of her colleagues in Auburn University, through two airports, and finally to her village now sit in the long awaited library in Kwale.

Supporters of the initiative added more books to the heap forming a collection that suits a wide range of interests. Students in the area will have full access to a safe environment where they can develop a reading culture.

Perhaps this will bring about a change in the trend of poor performance in national examinations at the coast. The success of this project adds to Dr Ngumbi’s impressive resume as not only an authority in her field but also as a champion for dedication to community service. She is passionate about issues of gender, education, youth activism, agriculture, sustainability, and is a strong advocate for ending world hunger.

As founder of initiatives like Oyeska Greens-a startup company aiming to revolutionise agriculture at the Kenyan Coast and Spring Break Kenya-an organisation that is galvanising young Kenyan university students into public service, Esther pushes her agenda for a better community.

She is excited to return home in October to celebrate the opening of Ella and Aiden’s Library.

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