Teach 75 mothers to read stories to kids in Kenya

by Maria's Libraries
Local librarians attend training in Kisumu
Local librarians attend training in Kisumu

 I walked by my local bookstore yesterday and noticed a huge display of colorful children’s books in the window. It’s “Children’s Book Week” here in the US, and the store is highlighting a selection of newly released children’s literature to mark the occasion. This got me thinking about the enormity of the children’s book industry in America. Our children have thousands of age-appropriate books in countless genres to choose from, and even if books aren’t available to them at home, they can access books for free at both school libraries and public libraries. My own home is brimming with children’s books. My 3 year old soothes himself to sleep at night by flipping through books and telling himself the stories.

I took these resources for granted until I discovered, through my work with Maria’s Libraries, all of the educational set-backs children face when they aren’t exposed to reading and books from an early age. Learning to read is far more difficult if you don’t have access to books until you’re old enough to attend school. Even more so if the language you’re learning to read in school is different from the language you speak at home.  And how can we expect children to learn any other subjects if they don’t know how to read?

With this is mind, I am especially excited to report that with your support, in April, we expanded the Mama Mtoto (Mother-Child) story time program to include 4 more sites near Kisumu, Kenya. Over the next 8 weeks, mothers in the new program will learn to read to their children using both printed and digital story books. In the final weeks of the program we will introduce our new, multi-language digital story book.  At this stage, participating mothers will be invited to translate the story into their local dialect--expanding the book's language options to include Swahili, Samia, Kiteso and Luo. 

One of the librarians facilitating the Kisumu program is Rosemary Imbayi. After a Maria’s Libraries training on how to implement Mama Mtoto story time, she went home to her primary school in Sigalagala and started the program the very next week—even though it was in the middle of school vacation. Rosemary signed up five mothers and their young children and is working with them to record stories of their life and culture.  Rosemary does all of this on her own time. In fact, the only reason there is a library at her school is because she volunteered to start it. She is not paid any extra to run the library; she just does what needs to be done.

Community leaders like Rosemary are at the heart of Maria’s Libraries mission. We are doing this work to ensure that dedicated community librarians have the tools and resources they need to instill cultures of reading in their communities—and sustain their libraries.

 Your continued support enables us to partner with local change-makers like Rosemary, and create opportunities for many more families to experience the power of reading with their children. Through Mama Mtoto, dedicated librarians and young mothers are being equipped with the skills and resources to encourage early childhood reading. The impact extends well beyond children’s story time. This early exposure to books, especially printed (or digitized!) in local languages, sets children up for greater success in primary school. Equally important, it enables parents to take a proactive role in their children’s education. As we celebrate children’s book week here in the US, let’s recognize what a difference story books can make!

Rosemary & American Volunteer, Sue Stein
Rosemary & American Volunteer, Sue Stein
A screenshot from the Mama Mtoto digital book
A screenshot from the Mama Mtoto digital book

Greetings from New York City! I recently assumed the role of Executive Director at Maria’s Libraries.  I am honored to be working on behalf of their important efforts in Kenya.  A Mama myself, I am especially passionate about our Mama Mtoto story time program. While reviewing what my fellow Mamas in Busia have been working on, I was happy to discover that “Harold and the Purple Crayon” is the English story Mamas most love to read. Harold was my husband’s favorite childhood story time companion, and he is now one of our sons’ favorites too! It struck me as I prepared to write this update that Harold’s story is also a compelling metaphor for our work at Maria’s Libraries.

 Harold started off with a simple goal: a walk in the moonlight. With the help of his trusty purple crayon he drew a moon, and a path, and set out on his course. As his journey unfolded, he discovered a long list of obstacles and needs to address.  He desires a more interesting landscape, so he creates an apple tree.  He worries that his apples might be stolen, so he creates a dragon to guard them. He encounters an ocean, so he creates a sailboat for safe passage.  And so it continues, until he longs for sleep and draws himself safely into his own bed.

Like Harold, we started off with a simple goal: teach mothers to read to their children.  As our journey unfolded we discovered a need for books that captured local children’s stories, in local languages, so we published a collection of four storybooks created by participants from the original Mama Mtoto Story Time Program.  We recognized limitations of printed books in a region with numerous local dialects, so we developed a multi-lingual digital version of the Mama Mtoto storybooks. This technology will enable Mamas to experience stories with their children even if they do not have reading skills themselves.

In the weeks ahead, the Mamas will begin working with this new digital book.  Ariel, our new favorite Swahili storyteller Margaret Ronoh, and Esther, a Librarian from Busia Community Library, have been busily recording audio for this book. Readers will be able to read or listen to in multiple languages including Swahili, Samia, and English. This month we’ll do a quick round of user testing with the book in its current state to get an idea of how readers like the interactive features already included. Ultimately, we’d like this early version of the digital books to feature audio for all the original languages in which they were written, which also includes Kiteso, Maa, and Somali.

 In the meantime, Mamas are focused on learning to use computers and tablets, and reading the digital version of “Harold”.  Mamas told us they are really loving the technology. In addition to enabling them to better support their children’s’ educations, they expressed a number of other important benefits, including:

“Calculating the income and expenses of my business.  I was introduced to a bit of excel.”

“Employment skills. I have not yet got a job but if I continue learning how to use the computer I will be able to get a job…These days its a must to be computer literate”

“Its helping me to revive my knowledge that I acquired during my school days.”

And so plans for expanded technology training begin to take shape in our minds.

With your support, we will continue on our path with our proverbial “purple crayon” until we have created solutions to all of the challenges that mothers (and fathers!) in Kenya are facing. We are grateful for your ongoing commitment to these efforts.  We couldn’t do any of it without you!

Mamas, and a baby, practice working with tablets
Mamas, and a baby, practice working with tablets
Mama Mtoto
Mama Mtoto

“We will tell people to come to the library and see our book but we already told our kids. They are even waiting for us to finish using the tablets so that they could also use!”

Dear Friends of Maria’s Libraries,

When we started working with groups of young, semi-literate mothers in 2011, many of them reported they had not looked at a book since they left primary school—and none of them had ever used a computer.  Flash forward two years later, when last month the mamas met to provide feedback on the first iteration of the digital book that they authored!

The Mamas were delighted and proud to see the fruits of their labor in digital form. They also brought a number of suggestions to the table. “We want audio for the book and animations like the ones in Harold and the Purple Crayon”, one of the Mamas exclaimed. Another Mama suggested the book have pictures of ground nuts so that their children would learn about local plants and foods. The user testing session was a great opportunity to get a sense of what exactly the Mamas wanted out of their digital book.

“We are interested in getting that particular book on our phones…Let those people design the book in a way that will enable us to access it from anywhere on our phone”

With support from the Beyond Access Library Innovators Award, Maria’s Libraries and Oregon State University have piloted Mama Mtoto Digital Storytime.  We are excited to continue to develop the digital book so that libraries across Kenya will able to offer quality local content through a number of platforms, including tablet, computer, and mobile!

We are currently raising funds to move forward with the next round of the book design. The development of this program would not be possible without your sustained support. As ever, your contributions are appreciated.



The Mamas meet their digital book
The Mamas meet their digital book
Mamas with the iPads
Mamas with the iPads

Dear Friends of Maria’s Libraries,

Since 2009, the $8,971 investment from theGlobal Giving community enabled Maria’s Libraries’ Kitabu Kenya network to teach 60 young mothers to read storybooks to their children. As part of the program, the Mamas recorded an oral tale from their community which was published to use as part of the program. Maria’s Libraries is pleased to let you know that these books are now getting a professional boost in two different ways.

“It [Mama Mtoto] has also reminded us about the stories we had forgotten” - Participant from Mama Mtoto

The first round of Mama Mtoto was a huge hit, but it was not without its challenges. We had trouble finding enough books in languages the mamas felt comfortable reading in. In addition, the mamas let us know they wanted more.  They were eager to support their children’s education, but, having not gone very far in school themselves, they did not know how. Last October, Mama Mtoto won the Beyond Access Library Innovators Award to work on a digital version of the books that can address these challenges. Not only will the books be interactive to support learners with low levels of literacy, the books will also allow the libraries at each site to directly input their own language, reinventing the publishing model for local language books.  We’ve already started teaching the mamas how to use digital books, starting with Harold and the Purple Crayon. The next step is to get their feedback on their own book, so that as the book is developed their views are represented.

"My kids were asking if the books can be sold. Then their friends could buy the book, to see their moms and the story from Busia" - Participant from Mama Mtoto

Maria’s Libraries is also working with Africa Soma and the Global Books Foundation to publish a Mama-Mtoto Storytime line of storybooks. Global Books is also partnering with the Academy of Global Citizenship in Chicago to design lesson plans for elementary students based on the books. Proceeds from the sale of the books will go towards sustaining the Mama Mtoto program. We are hoping to publish the books by the end of July!

As you can see, investment in the Mama Mtoto program goes a long way. Currently, we are raising funds to continue to develop the digital book.  Your continued support is much appreciated!



Learning with Harold and the Purple Crayon
Learning with Harold and the Purple Crayon

Dear Friends of Maria’s Libraries,

Greetings from Busia! My name is Sofia Mussa.  I’m very excited to be joining the Maria’s Libraries team for the next few months. I’ll be on the ground in Busia, working on a number of projects including the Mama Mtoto Storytime project as well as local fundraising for the construction of a brand new county library.

We have exciting news to report!  In October of last year, our team won the Library Innovators Award at the Beyond Access Local Alternatives for Development Conference for a new phase of Mama Mtoto Storytime.  The plan is to digitize and make interactive the multi-language books published last summer. The books will have exciting features including photos, videos and quizzes and will be accessible to users of all literacy levels.  Once the digital books have been developed, I will work with the Mamas to make sure they are developed in a way that actually works for our community! We’re very excited to start developing the digital books in the next couple of weeks and we’ll be sure to keep you updated!

We’ll be revitalizing our fundraising efforts for this project specifically, to fund the advanced coding that is required for the digital book.  As ever, your support is much appreciated!




About Project Reports

Project Reports on GlobalGiving are posted directly to globalgiving.org by Project Leaders as they are completed, generally every 3-4 months. To protect the integrity of these documents, GlobalGiving does not alter them; therefore you may find some language or formatting issues.

If you donate to this project or have donated to this project, you will get an e-mail when this project posts a report. You can also subscribe for reports via e-mail without donating.

Get Reports via Email

We'll only email you new reports and updates about this project.

Organization Information

Maria's Libraries

Location: Brooklyn, NY - USA
Website: http:/​/​www.mariaslibraries.org
Maria's Libraries
Project Leader:
Eva Kaplan
Brooklyn, NY Kenya

Retired Project!

This project is no longer accepting donations.

Still want to help?

Find another project in Kenya or in Women and Girls that needs your help.
Find a Project

Learn more about GlobalGiving

Teenage Science Students
Vetting +
Due Diligence


Woman Holding a Gift Card
Gift Cards

Young Girl with a Bicycle

Sign up for the GlobalGiving Newsletter

WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.