Long distance librarian

by Mike Stagg

UL’s Peter Ochieng has a vision to transform his Kenyan home village through books.

Photos by Robin May

Peter Ochieng believes reading is the pathway out of poverty and, with his two brothers in his native Kenya and the help of allies in Lafayette, is working to create the first free public library in the region where he grew up.

Ochieng, an assistant professor in UL’s School of Kinesiology who has lived in 10 countries over the past two decades as he’s pursued his academic career, is seeking to collect one million books that he will ship to western Kenya to help break the cycle of poverty that grips the area. He has a shipment ready to go and is working on the logistics now.

Ochieng says he had an epiphany of sorts when he began a course study in Alabama.

“When the professor provided the syllabus, I suggested to my classmates that we go in on a book and share it,” Ochieng recalls. “They said ‘No, we each get our own books here.’ So, sharing books for learning is not the American way, but getting each person a book is.”

Since then, Ochieng has been working to get books into the hands of students in his native village of Ndere, which is located in Siaya County above Lake Victoria in western Kenya.

A former British colony, Kenya is slightly smaller than Texas in size, but has nearly twice the population — about 45 million people, according to the World Fact Book. Its eastern border is the Indian Ocean, where it sits between Somalia and Tanzania.

“[In the U.S.], you have books and the internet, people can learn if they want to,” Ochieng explains. “In my region, there are no books, there is no internet, and in some cases there are no teachers in the schools.”

Ochieng inspects books in a Lafayette storage shed.

Along with his brothers Vincent (an architect) and Patrick (a surveyor), Ochieng is working to establish a free library that would serve the schools and villages in the region. The building is in the design phase. Vincent is negotiating with local authorities over the issue of whether the library will be located on a school campus or be free-standing within the community. Peter sees this as a significant issue because the schools are operated by the national government. He worries that putting the library on school grounds would cede control of the facility to the government.

UL's Ochieng was inspired to ship books back to his home village by a history professor from Nigeria whom he met while working on his doctorate at the University of New Hampshire. After making a small initial shipment home, Ochieng began thinking bigger: During a stint in Australia, he made his first cargo container shipment of books to Kenya.

“About 500,000 books and some trophies and awards went straight into the Port of Mombasa but took about two months to reach the village because they arrived during the rainy season,” Ochieng says.

Ochieng and his wife Elizabeth arrived in Lafayette in the summer of 2016. She teaches chemistry at the university, while he coordinates the School of Kinesiology’s sports management program. The Ochiengs are the parents of three children, the youngest of whom, Crystal, is a student at Our Lady of Fatima. (Two sons are college-age and reside out of state.) Ochieng says students at Fatima and St. Thomas More will conduct book drives this spring to help reach the one million book goal. Ochieng has also spoken with UL President Joe Savoie about the university joining the effort as well.

Currently, Ochieng has books spread across Lafayette. The bulk of them are in a storage facility on Johnston Street, but Ochieng says several rooms of the house he rents from Phil Lank are filled with books, as is some of his office space at the university.

Lank has helped connect Ochieng to the community and to think through networking possibilities that could support the effort.

“A number of Lafayette companies have oil and gas opportunities in western Africa, primarily in Nigeria and Angola,” Lank notes. “But new oil and gas discoveries off Kenya’s coast are opening up new opportunities there. It might be possible to get Kenya representatives here for the next LAGCOE.”

Ochieng is proof of the validity of the concept he is working. His mother is a retired school teacher and his father was a civil servant, but one of the things that had the greatest impact on his own life was a gift from an American to his family.

“There was an American who was in Kenya on business for quite a while and he and my father met through Rotary,” Ochieng says. “When he left to go back to the U.S., he gave my father his set of Encyclopedia Britannica. It was through reading those that my brothers and I began to learn about the West and created my curiosity about other cultures.”

The encyclopedias, Ochieng says, became a draw for people throughout the area.

“Shipping the books is the largest hurdle,” Ochieng says. So, he’s set up a Go Fund Me page —“A million books & A library” — where he is seeking to raise the money needed to make the first shipment of approximately 600,000 books. He says he’s been in touch with shipping firms that are trying to figure the best route to Kenya from here; it’s not a straight shot across the Indian Ocean as was the shipment from Australia.

Ochieng hopes to have that shipment of books headed for Ndere in a month or so.