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Meet Gerald Mbugua, the founder Maktabas Inc, who is hellbent on creating a reading culture in Kenya

Readers Lounge By Malaika Chunji

Every year, Gerald Mbugua together with his family in the US ship a 40ft container of books to Kenya which are given out for free to schools across the country. He shares his vision of creating a reading generation especially in his village in Kiambu County where he was raised, writes Malaika Chunji

  • Who’s Gerald Mbugua?

I’m a 10th born in a family of 12. We are six boys and six girls raised by a strict dad who was headmaster for 35 years. Our mum was also a primary school teacher.

I am a Bachelor of Science graduate in Business Administration and Telecommunications Management as well as a Masters of Public Administrations graduate from California State East Bay University.

  • What’s the story between you and books?

My parents were educators in upcountry and one thing that stood out in the schools is the absence of libraries and reading resources. Having experienced life in the United States where I have been for over 20 years now, I know first hand what it means to have access to books and other reading materials. One day as we gathered at my sister’s place after her trip to Kenya, we mooted the idea of collecting books that were no longer in use in the US and ship them to Kenya to help thousands of children from underprivileged backgrounds and we decided to start with schools in the village where we were born and raised in Kiambu County.

  • You founded Maktabas Inc, right? How did the idea come about and why?

We founded it with my siblings after my sister’s trip to one of the schools in our village where the teachers’ biggest complaint was lack of books and libraries. A few months after her trip, we shipped a 20ft container of books and since the schools where the books were going didn’t have libraries, we built simple ones and stocked them with books. The fire just kept spreading and to-date we have served over 45 schools both primary and secondary level as well as numerous facilities and community centres.

  • Why books and where do you source them from?

Because education is the only thing you cannot take or inherit from someone. We have given other things like money and stationary but those ones cannot be traced right now but books as long as they are well taken care of, they will help other generations to come. Americans have been kind to us, we get these books from schools, libraries, book stores and from individual donors.

  • How many books have you given out so far?

We have shipped hundreds of thousands of books. Our experience hasn’t however been the best as books are not classified anywhere in the KRA list like they have cars and second hand clothes. We have had bad experiences with agents but this won’t kill our dream.

  • How do you bankroll the project?

We mostly use our money as we are still a young non-profit and not many people or companies want to deal with an organisation that is young and unknown. We also have a few friends who donate to us on occasionally. Books for Africa helps in offsetting some of the shipping costs.

  • Do you think the books are being put to good use?

Definitely they are based on the feedback from the students and teachers.

  • What’s your personal reading culture like?

Of late I read a book a month.

  • What was your lowest and your proudest moment in any of the schools you’ve been to give out books?

Lowest moment was when I visited a secondary school in our neighborhood and found books stashed in a shed next to a makeshift kitchet. The books showed a huge amount of soot and dust in them.

Proudest moment has to be this day I met standard two kids in the village and asked them whether their school had a library, they were so excited to share their experience in the library we had built. I felt good as I knew our effort wasn’t going to waste.

  • Do you think eBooks will kill bookshops some day?

Well…not soon. Show me one person who doesn’t like the smell of paper. Ebooks are a good idea and hope we all get used to them some day but just like the electric cooker did not replace the gas cooker, ebooks will compliment paper books but definitely will not supplement them anytime soon.

  • You have been in the US for over 20 years, what do you like and don’t like about the country and what do you miss most about Kenya?

I like the convenience in the U S for sure. I feel sad when I call home and mom tells me she has been without electricity all day and had to throw away food as a result. I miss the social life in Kenya.

  • If you are to recommend a book that you feel had a profound effect on you, what would it be?

Dreams of my Father by Barack Obama. It teaches us that you do not have to be born with a silver spoon in your mouth to lead the most powerful country in the world. You can be what you want to be.

  • Married? Children?

I am not married but I have a 10-year-old son who is one of my biggest motivators.

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