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For Community-Driven Global Development

Voices from the Field: Tom the Backpack

This account was written by Ying Dai. Originally from China, Ying is a junior at Northwestern University studying journalism, Asian American studies, and African studies. Ying interned with FSD at St. Francis Healthcare Center in 2017 and returned this year as a Community-Based Research Fellow to work with SAIDE in Kakamega, Kenya. 

As each and every day goes by here at SAIDE, I am becoming more and more convinced that the image of Kelvin’s white worn-out fabric bag will stay with me long after my departure.  It will wander through my memory, enter my dreams, and slowly solidify, insert itself into the center of my palm; becoming my own mini Mosaic map of time at SAIDE.

“Jacinta? Do you like the name, Jacinta?” I asked Kelvin while running my fingers through the bag’s torn-out flying fringes.

“Jacinta? Really, sounds a bit too fancy.” He went along with my usual extra playfulness.

“You are right, it needs a raggedy old man’s name...Jeremy? Oh I know, Tom!” I shouted out of excitement, quite proud of my selection.

“Haha okay, the bag’s name is Tom now. Tom is an old man who works way too hard.” He concludes, endorsing my silly naming ceremony.

According to Kelvin, Tom was born (purchased I guess you could say, for the less romantic minds) in the busy streets of Nairobi, in 2015. I don’t know how old Tom is in bag years, but I assume it should be younger than it looks right now. Looking at Tom today, you could hardly imagine when it was new, dashing, and whole; when it had newly received the colorful and vibrant “SAIDE Community” logo imprint; when it first arrived in Kelvin’s desk, before all the extreme stuffing, bouncing on piki piki, squeezing in matatu; before the sunburn, dust, and sweat.

Living inside Tom are 70 books for young readers, from SpongeBob’s adventure to romantic/crime campus novels. They are from different batches of donations SAIDE received over the years, you could find American thrillers, Flat Stanley, series of British youth novels with dramatic titles such as Bang” or “Outcasts”; and what makes Kelvin the most excited, a couple of books that feature African writers. “I always want to find more books centering on East Africa content, it’s very hard for young students to relate to Western books. When they don’t see themselves in the stories, they lose interest in reading.”

Kelvin handpicks a different set of books at the beginning of every year to keep Tom’s belly fresh and the young readers satisfied. Most of the books are covered with a thin layer of dust, edges worn, with some missing a page or two. They travel through countless pairs of hands every day. I am always amazed by Kelvin’s special set of packing skills, he always manages to stuff every single book in the already about-to-explode Tom, without actually destroying the bag. Tom quietly hangs from Kelvin’s shoulder; the weight draws a curve on Kelvin’s spine.

Tom and its 70 occupants accompany Kelvin on his journey to 14 different primary schools in the area every week for SAIDE’s “One Hour Reading” program. “The library is quite far for a lot of these kids, so I thought I would bring the books to them.” Students have one hour with Kelvin every week, they get to choose books from the pile and write a short summary after reading their book. Kelvin is no exception, being an excessive reader, he normally finishes a book every week. “When they see you reading and talking about the books you read, they want to read and write more too.” He explains. Watching him talking about books and the moving power and possibilities that come through literature is quite the experience. He never forgets to encourage students to invest in their education and work together with love, hope, and determination for shaping a brighter future.

This story is not about lack of resources, it refuses to become an example of inspirational text that only exists to remind people born on the other end of inequality of the resilience of human spirit. It rejects the narrative of powerlessness, of begging, of fetishizing scarcity for plastic compassion from people who “have so much”. Kelvin, with his bag pack of books on dusty roads, traveling to schools, tells the story of love, professionalism, perseverance, and love, love in the strongest, most enduring form.