By Rose Ng’ang’a
Over two decades ago, Gerald Mbugua resigned from his job at a bank in Kenya, packed his bags and moved to the United States of America to further his studies.
His older siblings who were already in the US had probably grown tired of his requests for money, so they got him I-20 (All foreign students studying in the United States must have the “Certificate of Eligibility for Nonimmigrant Student Status.”). Life wasn’t easy at first. Having moved from a well-paying, and secure job in which he had gotten used to a few privileges that came with working for a bank especially in those days, he thought he had made a bad decision.
“The first days I regretted why I left a good job, family and friends and moved into a country where getting a ‘proper’ job was hard. I couldn’t even tell my friends back at home what I was doing. But going to a boarding school at an early age helped me to quickly adjust to the new life,” he recalls.
Born and raised in a sleepy village in Kiambu County, Central Kenya, Gerald, a 10th born in a family of 12 siblings says his love for both countries is equal. One of the things he misses about Kenya though is the social life and of course the ‘nyama choma’.
“I love the convenience in the US. I feel sad sometimes when I call my mum back home and she tells me she has not had power for a whole day and had to throw away food that went bad as a result,” he adds.
Four years ago, Gerald together with his siblings started Maktabas-Inc, a charity organization whose mission is to provide reading materials for children and the youth in both rural and urban areas and especially in the informal settlements in Kenya.
Maktabas which in English means a library, was formed one afternoon after his sister had returned to the US from a trip to Kenya. During her trip, she visited her former primary school and one of the concerns raised by some of the teachers she met was the lack of reading materials and a library in the school.
“My dad was a headmaster for 35 years and my mum was a primary school teacher, so education is close to our hearts. 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. That’s how Maktabas came to be and so far, we are happy we what we have achieved so far,” he says.
A Master of Public Administrations graduate from California State East Bay University, Gerald juggles between fatherhood, his job at Global Payments, a merchant processing company and keeping Maktabas moving despite the challenges he has had to deal with especially with the Kenya Revenue Authority.
“Every year we ship three to four containers, but it hasn’t been easy. I still have two containers that have been stuck at the port for close to two years as the people concerned are asking for money I can’t afford to raise. We cover most of the costs from our pockets, but Books for Africa helps in offsetting some of the shipping costs,” he says.
One of the things that has kept Gerald going is the positive feedback he gets from children in schools where Maktabas has donated books as this, he says, is proof his hard work is being put to good use.
“There is this day I met Class two children 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,” he recalls.
Gerald believes the greatest import he can bring back to Kenya is knowledge and he is optimistic the books he sends every year leave a mark in every child who comes across them.
“One of my greatest reads even though I am not a book worm has to be ‘Dreams of My Father’ by Barack Obama. It teaches us that you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon to make it in life, you can be what you want to be as long as you have the initiative,” he adds.
Gerald’s parents were educators in upcountry and one things that stood out in the schools is the absence of libraries and reading resources. Having experienced life in the United States, he says he knows fast hand what it means to have access to books and other reading materials.
“This is the reason I believe in this dream and I am willing to sacrifice everything to make sure every child in every corner of Kenya, gets access to books and good reading spaces as knowledge is the best gift I can give even to my own son,” he adds.
Check their website, www.maktabas.org