Kaltuma Sama is the Head Librarian at Kenya National Library Service (KNLS), Buru Buru in Nairobi.

She shared her story with Sunday Magazine.


I am an early riser, usually up by 4.30 am. I pray and read a chapter or two from the Holy Quran. If it is a school day, I will prepare my children for school before leaving for work. Once I get to the office, I do around to check the shelving. Then I check my mails before I kick off my day. I normally set something to do every day, whether it is outreach or mentorship. In the morning I ensure that whatever I had set out for the day is in progress.

As the librarian in charge of KNLS Buru Buru, Nairobi, I am responsible for the day-to-day running of the library. I make sure the shelving is done on time, the library is open on time, reports are done on time, and everything else that is supposed to be done is running smoothly.

I love what I do. I love interacting with the users and getting to understand the kind of information needs they have. Little children are my favourite, though. I have three children (10, 8, and 6 years old) and here it is like I am taking care of my own children. I love connecting with them. I have worked with KNLS since 2001 and I have been the children’s librarian all through.

When I was in secondary school, a teacher told me a prophecy of sorts although I didn’t know what he was telling me. I loved reading and the teacher told me one day I would be a librarian. I felt sad. I was thinking of becoming an engineer or doctor or pilot, the professions everyone wanted then. We didn’t have a working library in our school so I took it as an insult thinking, “Why does he want me to work with old books?”

My becoming a librarian was by chance. I applied for a course in information science at Kenya Polytechnic in 1999. I thought I was studying journalism. It was only one month down the line that I knew I was doing librarianship and by then, I loved it. It gave me a chance to do what I want – reading and serving users.

The day-to-day running of the library is not a challenge because once you know who is doing what, everything falls into place. But during the holidays we have an influx of users (we serve between 1,800 to 2,000 children a day) and sometimes we don’t have a place to keep them so we are forced to send some home and tell them to come in shifts. We usually hire extra seats, and spread out carpets and provide poufs at the lounge to accommodate more, but still it is usually not enough.

Where I come from girls are married off immediately after secondary school. I didn’t want that. I had three plans – finish my degree before getting married, build a house, then take care of my family. I have done all that and I am very proud. One of my bosses once told me no situation is permanent, that I should just do my best and things will change. That was during the time I had been transferred to the interior of northern Kenya. That is an advice I believe applies in all spheres of life.

I always tell my colleagues to get out of their comfort zones. I tell them to challenge themselves. If it means getting papers so you can move, get those qualifications and move. That is the best career advice I’d give anyone – challenge yourself.

I run a peer-to-peer learning circle. From that I’ve graduated so many youths and most of them are practicing what they’ve learnt to better themselves. For instance, there is one we did called Entrepreneurship: Thinking and Action. There is a young man I am proud of who is applying that. He learnt how to source for funds, went back to his village in Kisii, used the knowledge to better his farming skills and now has a steady client.

I also mentor young entrants into this career. I train librarians from African countries and international audiences on how to better library spaces with minimal resources. I also train peer-to-peer learning facilitators. I was picked as a trailblazer among 16 African public librarians by Trailblazer, an initiative of global libraries programme of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These are some of my proudest accomplishments.

In the evening, once I leave the office, I head straight home, prepare meals for my family and check my children’s homework. We also do madrassa together. Later it would be watching the news and then bedtime.Outside work, I stay indoors most of the time. I spend time with my children or entertain visiting relatives or read. I’m now reading a novel called I remember You by Harriet Evans about two childhood friends who are reconnecting after they finished school.

The advice I’d tell my younger self is the same advice I’d give myself now – be free and have fun. I really think I don’t know how to have fun.