Kenya Connections: For Two Connecticut Librarians, KenyaMeans More Than a Safari

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By Barbara Wysocki, co-director of children's services at Rocky Hill’s Cora J. Belden Library

Originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of Connecticut Libraries, a publication of the Connecticut Library Association

Can a electronic discussion list posting change your life? Audra Zimmermann thinks so. President and co-owner of the library consulting firm, The Donohue Group (DGI), Audra clearly remembers the day in May 2007 when she discovered a CLClist item about the American Friends of Kenya (AFK). The Norwich-based charity was looking for volunteers to work on library projects in that East Africa nation.

Within the hour, she and Susan Yannello, DGI’s manager of retrospective conversion and cataloging services, had applied and, a few days later, they submitted resumes and letters of recommendation. “We heard back that same day,” says Audra about their warm, and immediate, welcome to join AFK’s 2008 team. “We were so excited!” Susan agrees, “I had been looking for a special project that would allow me to make a large impact in the library world.”

Although it would be more than a year until take-off time, both became immersed in planning for the trip. At meetings with library team members Diane Stackpole and Pat and McKenzie Little, they heard about AFK’s 2006 trip to Kenya. They began organizing shipments of books destined for the Starehe Girls Centre near the capital city of Nairobi. That meant barcoding 1,100 items, photocopying each title page and verso, creating customized MARC records, and then printing complete catalog card sets with spine labels. Undaunted, they sorted all 1,100 catalog card sets and made a shelflist. “We called it ‘library-in-a-box,’” laughs Audra.

The team amassed two duffel bags full of book-mending supplies, blank labels and, for good measure, they tucked in donated toys and school supplies. But they weren’t done yet. Planning one-day workshops for the 30 Kenyan library workers they’d soon meet included creating handouts on acquisitions, weeding, mending, classifying, public service and early literacy.

The AFK website notes that Kenya’s challenging conditions include a life expectancy of less than 50 years for adults; of every 1,000 live births, 123 children die before their fifth birthday. AFK education and medical teams were also preparing for the trip.

Then, in December 2007, it looked like the groups’ hard work might have to be put on hold. The Kenyan presidential election became the flashpoint for civil unrest. Riots in some areas they planned to visit made the trip a question mark for almost six months. But Audra and Susan completed their immunizations, and by June 29 their group was on its way to Kenya.

American Friends of Kenya describes these visits as work and pleasure. For the first five days, the group learned about Kenya on safari, allowing them to see the wildlife and culture of the Masai Mara reserve. Audra, a veteran traveler, enjoyed “the chance to return to Africa, but not simply as a tourist.” For Susan, “This seemed the perfect opportunity, both to travel to a new place, and to make an impact.” She adds, “All of the participants in the mission were eager to get to work at the end of the safari.”

The Thika Regional Library

Making an impact requires collaboration between the U.S. charity and eight Kenyan agencies. AFK partners with African Christian Church and Schools, which donated property in a rural community for the Thika Regional Library, completed after the team’s return. Susan and Audra worked with staff at Thika to determine the best place to set up a children’s department, discussed how to use the Dewey Decimal System and talked about the library’s role as a gathering place. Thika Regional Library is about more than books; it’s a health and education hub for the 900,000 people it serves. With other library team members, the pair also presented workshops for 37 school librarians.

The Starehe Girls’ Centre

Audra and Susan were impressed by the hard work and interest of their Kenyan counterparts and inspired by the Starehe Girls’ Centre students. This residential high school draws motivated, high-achieving, impoverished young women from all over Kenya. Continuing the task of putting together the library of this new school, the library team explained basic procedures for circulation, tech support, and reference to student volunteers.

As they finished up on a Saturday afternoon, they promised to return on Monday to catalog books previously donated to the library. The students and their advisor were eager to learn, so the library team showed them where to find the needed bibliographic information. Returning on Monday, they found 2,000 books’ worth of data listed on hand-written pages. The girls apologized because they hadn’t finished entering the mounds of information into a computer spreadsheet. “We had no idea they were listening that closely,” says Susan, “Or that it was humanly possible to do all that work so quickly.”

To expand their outreach, the library team met with staff from the National Library of Kenya. AFK is also involved with the Johnny Appleseed Project, which brings books to children in the Nairobi slums.

Before returning to U.S. soil, Audra had already signed up for the 2009 team, which is already at capacity. Preparations for next summer’s visit are well underway with the balance of Starehe’s books being cataloged and processed. A survey has been conducted with their Kenyan partners to ensure that only the books that are genuinely needed will be shipped.

AFK Executive Director Emely Silver notes that, “Audra and Susan bring an incredible amount of expertise, enthusiasm, dedication and knowledge to AFK.” Audra has joined the group’s Board of Directors and Susan is on their Advisory Committee.

Fundraising is also a goal for these committed women. At the New England Library Association’s fall conference, Susan and other DGI staff sold beautiful handcrafted beaded jewelry made by Kenyan women, raising $440.

Librarians can contact Audra or Susan by calling DGI at 860-683-1647, or visit Who knows? A conversation at the conference might change your life, too.