Surbhi Bharadwaj, Senior Photographer

The Likoni Library Project is calling upon the Yale community to help inspire Mombasa youth. 

The project — which aims to cultivate foundational literacy skills in Mombasa, Kenya by disseminating donated books — will host a book packaging event on April 27 at the Afro-American Cultural Center. Student volunteers will gather to close out a months-long campus book drive.  

“When I think back to my first moments of falling in love with learning, it started with reading,” Nadja Umlauf  ’22 said. “I wanted to give my students opportunities to explore new characters, worlds, and ideas through reading, exciting their intellectual curiosity in the process.” 

Umlauf, a current Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Likoni, a division of Mombasa County, Kenya, began The Likoni Library Project alongside fellow ETA Elaine Ansah. Umlauf was assigned to teach at Mrima Mixed Secondary School, while Ansah works at Shika-Adabu Secondary School. 

When the pair initially arrived in Kenya in January 2023, they spoke with school staff and students to see how they could best serve the community during their nine-month stay. 

“In the two schools we were assigned to, which serve over 2,000 students, there were few books besides textbooks and other course-related materials that students had access to,” Umlauf told the News. 

This shortage of reading materials prompted their creation of the Likoni Library Project. Umlauf and Ansah began tapping into American networks to organize book drives and fundraising efforts to support international shipping. The project launched its first book drive at Yale in early March and has expanded to academic institutions like The Dalton School, a private high school in New York City, by April. The project also received donations from the US embassy. 

Darren Markwei ’25, the current president of the Yale African Students Association, has been a key organizer of the book packing event and has helped spread word of the project’s mission across campus. 

Umlauf reached out to Markwei so he could help promote the project on the Yale campus. Markwei said that the project’s mission resonated with him personally, and he gladly jumped in.

“My parents growing up, they didn’t have much at all, and someone invested in them and built libraries in their local school where they’re from in Ghana,” Markwei said. “I’ve seen the impact firsthand of what reading and literacy has done to them.”

The Yale Black Women’s Coalition is working alongside YASA and The Likoni Library Project to recruit volunteers and accumulate books. Umlauf hopes to ship at least 1,000 total books to Likoni, allowing each school to start its library collection with 500 books.

Collecting, cataloging and transporting donated books is only one step, though, in the project’s greater mission to help students fall in love with reading and the creativity it inspires.

“Every child should have the ability to have access to books to expand their knowledge and most importantly their imagination,” YBWC Publicist Shelley Duodu ’26 wrote to the News. 

The books donated by The Likoni Library Project will be used to run English enrichment programming for Mombasa students enrolled in Access, a U.S. Embassy program that aims to provide global students from disadvantaged backgrounds with English language skills. 

Current programming includes creative writing classes, student-run literary magazines, local readings and a newly-developed scholarship system. 

“In Kenya, generally speaking, tuition for primary school is free, and then you have school fees for secondary,” Umlauf told the News. “As part of the program we’re now offering and have offered eight scholarships for students in the secondary school.”

Students on scholarship will serve as Likoni Library ambassadors; they will help sort and organize books, lead book clubs and support student magazines. This in turn will make English enrichment programs available to students outside of the Access program. 

The Likoni Library Project also hopes to expand its mission to more schools in the area. The project is currently working with a community organization that runs English literacy programs in both secondary and primary schools throughout Kenya. Umlauf sees the potential to open a third library in an additional location. 

For Jailon Henry ’23, a student organizer involved with the project, the more students that have access to libraries, the better. 

“I really believe in the power of reading to open up a new type of thinking that can allow you to access your thoughts more clearly and to analyze information that is presented to you in a deeper way,” Henry told the News. “I believe in the power of fiction to add depth to the way people experience their lives.” 

With possible expansion on the horizon, the Project is currently focusing its efforts on donation transport and officially opening the Mrima and Shika-Adabu libraries. 

Umlauf grinned as she described watching her students browsing brand-new bookshelves during an April soft launch of the Mrima school library. She said that after launching the new libraries, she has seen the students’ curiosity expand with access to more reading resources. 

“For some of my students, they’ve never really had a storybook,” Umlauf said. “It was such an amazing moment.”

Umlauf told the News she believes opening these libraries is a piece of the larger impact they hope the project will have on the students’ lives. Throughout the last few months in Mombasa, she added that she has seen the students grow in terms of their English-language reading and speaking skills.

“With many of our English Access students, their confidence levels and leadership abilities have truly blossomed,” she said. “We’re excited to see how much work can be done over the next few months, and how much our students can grow.”

The Likoni Library project is accepting donations through its GoFundMe as well as through an Amazon wish list of curated books. 

Correction 5/4: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Umlauf was part of YASA during her undergraduate years. 

Update 5/15: The article has been updated to include additional quotes on the project’s mission. 

Elena is a Junior studying English and Education.