Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Our Reading Spaces

These days my favorite reading space is on my front porch, in a fading white wicker chair, tucked in the corner. I think a mama bird is building a nest in the eaves of the porch. I try not to disrupt her early morning ritual on Saturday and Sunday, when I come out to read, and to listen to all of those songbirds singing songs of sunrise.

The two gold variegated Leyland Cypress trees flanking the entryway are running out of room to grow; but they look beautiful at Christmas time. And I like the way the two giants (Kibo and Mawenzi) dwarf the space, reaching beyond limits to a world of unlimited sunshine and red clay.

As a child, one of my favorite reading spaces was under one of the three large windows in our living-cum-dining room in the home that doubled as Paa Ya Paa Art Gallery.

Imagine what it looked like before the fire...

I also thoroughly enjoyed laying outside on a blanket under one of the many Jacaranda trees. I did not visit the Nairobi Public library much back then, as my high school library housed all of the reading materials I needed. And having an author for a mother meant that my brother and I were often treated to trips to her favorite bookshop in town; to this day my favorite scent is the fresh smell of a new book!

Our reading spaces are important, and some of us have a huge variety of options to choose from. More importantly, we do not suffer from book famine. However, there are millions of children in poor rural communities all over the world, whose parents are forced to prioritize other necessities above education.

To some extent I agree with Dambisa Moyo and her provocative argument on Why Foreign Aid Is Hurting Africa "...African countries repay debt at the expense of African education and health care...," says Moyo. And we have all heard Nelson Mandela's famous quote: "Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world."

I have a friend who is committed to making a difference. Irene Mbari-Kirika is Founder and Executive Director of Our Reading Spaces, a non-profit organization whose primary purpose is to provide welcoming and comfortable spaces for children and adults to pursue reading activities in rural Kenya.

"I realize that time may have moved on, but for so many people the economic conditions of twenty years ago are the same." (Mbari-Kirika)

Our Reading Spaces is currently in the fundraising and construction phase for their inaugural project -- the Kairi Library/Community Center in Thika District of rural Kenya. The building will be located in the heart of Kairi village, within 400 metres of the village center and within walking distance of several area schools. It will be designed to accommodate 200 people, and will be outfitted with electrical power and sanitary facilities.

I am excited to share that Barnes & Noble nationwide has teamed up with Our Reading Spaces for a book fair fundraiser running from April 27 through May 3, 2009. Click here for the Barnes & Noble voucher for use during this time; a percentage of proceeds will be donated to Our Reading Spaces beneficiary schools in Kenya:

Thika School for The Blind Primary
Thika School for The Blind Secondary
Rachel Dep's Childrens Orphanage in Thika (34 children)
Thika General Hospital - Children's Wing
Kairi Village Mobile Library Service (circulating books among 6 schools)

In addition, if you are in the Atlanta area, there are special activities planned around the fund raiser.

Saturday May 2, 2009
Swahili Story Time - 11:00 a.m.
Kenyan Traditional Dancers - 1:30 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, BUCKHEAD
2900 Peachtree Road NE, Suite 310, Atlanta, GA 30305

Kenyan Traditional Dancers - 3:00 p.m.
Barnes & Noble, CAMP CREEK
3685 Market Place Blvd, East Point, GA 30344

Here is a wonderful opportunity to purchase a book and contribute to the promotion of literacy in rural populations of Kenya.

Asanteni sana.

Mama Shujaa

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Passages of an Immigrant's Life

Sunset in Freetown, Sierra Leone.


Life speaks a spontaneous language

at once personal, dynamic and formal.

Other times

Life dares to challenge it's sensitive students,

immigrants and their polite existence.

Most times

Life finds them elongated away from homelands

with the swift movement of time

a constant feature

moving them

through realms of expression

deeply involved in life

deeply involved in death.

At all times

Life speaks a natural language

rhythmically unfolding the story

of immigrants and their preoccupations

driven by an urge to live and

a will to survive aspects of their lives

they would rather forget

paths to permanent residence

defenses against permanent removal.

Then a loved one passes

far away in the homeland

in a world close to their spiritual habitations

where the traditional magic of

the village cock crow

echoes across the compound

and there’s never an end

to human drama and dance

where long, flowing fly-whisks

sweep the air and revive the spirit.

When a loved one passes

far away in the homeland

immigrants become good


learning nevermore

to take their homeland for granted.

On the morning of April 20, 2009, my best friend lost a dear relative. He died instantly in a motorcycle accident in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Uncle Bailor (pronounced Bye-lor) was her father’s younger brother, by a different mother (my friend’s grandfather had four wives). And as is customary in Islamic tradition, Uncle Bailor was buried on the same day because he passed away in the morning. May his soul rest in perfect peace. My friend will gather with extended family and friends here in a mosque in the U.S. for a prayer vigil seven days after the burial.

Uncle Bailor meant the world to her; he was the only grown-up who validated her existence as a child fighting for time in a household filled with step-mothers and step-siblings. His tall, imposing stature inspired her and her siblings to stand up straight in the compound, and sit up straight in school; he expected success from each one of them. A hardworking businessman, he worked hard to support his older brother(s) and the extended family.

My friend last talked to Uncle Bailor soon after Ramadan in 2008. In her last conversation with him, she had to convince him to accept a monetary gift she had wired him as a token of love.

He argued that in lieu of the money, he wanted to see her and her children and urged her to hurry home soon.

Mama Shujaa.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Taking Root: The Vision of Wangari Maathai

As you may know, I serve as Vice-Chairperson of The Association of Kenyan Professionals in Atlanta, (AKPA).

AKPA is a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote the wellbeing of its members, through the mobilization of resources here in Atlanta.

Prior to my current term, I enjoyed a two-year spell as Chairperson of the Education Committee of AKPA. The committee is charged with sourcing scholarship funds for Kenyan students, facilitating the professional growth of the students and supporting them in their transition after graduation.

I am often asked where I find the time to fulfill my duties as a mother of three, a loving wife, a full-time employee, and an active board member of a non-profit.

I respond by saying that I make the time. I watch very few hours of television; a few select programs here and there, the news, and of course important football/soccer matches. I joined a vanpool, and this provides me with two extra hours per day, during which time I read, write or rest. Simply put, I try to manipulate time to make it my ally. As a result, I have realized great joy from minimal but consistent investment of time in non-profit work.

A special moment presented itself during my tenure as Education Committee Chair. I was nominated by the board to serve as Event Committee Chair for a reception planned here in Atlanta, in honor of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Professor Wangari Maathai.

AKPA had anticipated the glorious opportunity to honor the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize and two years after her award, our moment came. We felt energized and inspired by our fellow Kenyan, a woman who has dedicated her life to development, democracy and peace. As you can imagine, we threw ourselves into planning the best event! Fortunately for us, Professor Maathai's moral authority by now, was well appreciated the world over, and most of our corporate sponsors actually vied for the opportunity to participate.
Event Committee members with Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai (5th from left). I am at the end in black and gold.

The event was very well attended. Here we see guests listening to Dr. Maathai's keynote address after enjoying refreshments.

I am excited to share with you that Professor Maathai and the Green Belt Movement she founded are the focus of an award-winning documentary film to be shown on PBS stations on Tuesday (April 14, 2009) in the United States. Click here for more information and channel listings. The feature includes interviews with Dr. Maathai and other Kenyan activists as well as archival footage from the colonial era. Below are a few clips of the film. I hope you can find the time to watch it. I will not miss it.

Baadaye basi,

Mama Shujaa.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Ultimate Betrayal

("Saving For Old Age," by my father Elimo Njau, co-founder of Paa Ya Paa Creative Arts Center in Nairobi (in the 1960s and it is still standing today).)

It does not matter whether or not we are among those who let it happen.

We are all guilty. Actors and spectators. Eye-witnesses and plunderers.

We recognize each other in our indifference, our slow poison, our greed for power.

African First Lady So-and-so, Professor of this-and-that. We profess our concern for the enterprise and culture of Africa.

Tell me, modern day Judas Iscariots, what have you done with the joy and the power of the land?

Witness, as the people of Mayotte, voted to be recolonized by France.

A vote, of no-confidence in Africa’s independent future. The death, of a sovereign nation, the despair in a continent wrought by corruption, cruelty and brutality. A harbinger of future recolonizations in Africa.

It is my prayer that Africa is liberated from the human tragedy playing out, fashioned by the hands of leaders, incapable of governing: Abacha, Bokassa, Jammeh, Kibaki, Mugabe, Museveni, to name a few.

It is my prayer that Africa heeds the warning of Mayotte and its recolonization.

It is my prayer that we charge ourselves with the duty to demand, on behalf of mankind, humane governments; to encourage the winds of change; to stop the betrayal of the people of Africa.

It is my prayer that we do this in remembrance of the bones of our ancestors.

And one day we will rise victorious, our spirits liberated to shine freely amongst the living and the dead.

Because, Africa belongs to us all!

I wish you a Happy Easter.

Mama Shujaa.

Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved

Monday, April 6, 2009

That AMBI. Is it something special?

Come look at this face...


even closer...

Now, check the skin.

Not bad, huh?

I use AMBI skin cream,

And you are looking at skin AMBI helped beautify.

You see, AMBI helps get rid of blotches, dark spots...the works!
AMBI conditions and softens your skin too. And AMBI blends your skin into one beautiful glowing tone, all over...

That AMBI. It is something special!

Text: From Hydroquinone (skin bleaching agent) advertisement regularly aired on Kenya Television in the 1970s-80s.
Illustration: Watercolor by Hana Njau-Okolo (Feb. 2007)

Tuongee? [Thoughts?]


Mama Shujaa.

All content, images Copyright © Hana Njau-Okolo 2009. All Rights Reserved.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Unending Thanks

There was another barrier that was broken on November 5, 2008; it was inspired by the momentous cultural one for the United States of America. It rode on the back of the far-reaching importance of the election of the first African-American President. And with it's embodiment of a new dawn, it urged an awakening and unleashing of uncharacteristic courage. The launch of Mama Shujaa!

Since the launch, I have redirected my focus from thinking to doing; blogging, disciplining my writing; creating a habit that will eventually bring into being, bits and pieces of my soul. What has lain dormant in the somewhat robotic existence that has obstinately guarded my immigrant life for so many years.

I am thankful for the astounding amount of dynamism in this blogosphere, a meeting point of diverse minds and collective voices. I am thankful for the generosity of spirit I have encountered. I am thankful for the inspiration.

Exceptional thanks go to everyone who has read and followed my blog from the very beginning. I am grateful, and to you I say a Big Asante Sana!

Thank you Cynthia from Oasis Writing Link for presenting me with the Best Blog Thinker Award. The award's creator, B. J. Roan, writes that:

"This award acknowledges the values that every Blogger displays in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values with each message they write. Awards like this have been created with the intention of promoting community among Bloggers. It’s a way to show appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web.”

I would like to pass this award to the following bloggers:

Rose-Anne at Currents Between Shores, for her intense intellectual quickies that come in handy;

Dr. Maithri at The Soaring Impulse, a gifted poet, and a selfless humanitarian who is currently in Swaziland working with HIV communities;

Denford at Denford Magora's Zimbabwe Blog, for reminding us not to give up the fight;

Shiko-Msa at Wanjiku Unlimited who constantly grants us fresh and bold interpretations of life in Kenya; and

to A Cuban In London for his deeply insightful posts.

Asante to all once again. I hope you will find time to visit these wonderful blogs.


Mama Shujaa.