Joy Njuguna, 17, moved from Kenya to Hayward, California, on the day she turned nine. She was a little underwhelmed by her first glimpse of the States. “In Africa, we hear about America as this heavenly place,” she says with a laugh. “It’s the land of milk and honey. They always told me I was going to walk on golden streets here.”
But the first time her parents took her to an American library, she was blown away. “Books were the golden street for me!” she says, adding that in Africa, storytelling is more of an oral tradition. In her home village, if you owned a book, you were considered very wealthy. “I had never seen such a place filled with books. At first I was scared of borrowing books—I felt like how could they trust me with these really precious things?”
Quickly, Njuguna became a steady library patron, moving from picture books to novels as she grew up. But she says she could not stop thinking about being raised in Kenya by her grandmother, who was illiterate. “When I read, I think of my grandma, and I feel really bad,” she says. “She was really special to me. The only thing I taught her was how to write the word ‘cup.’ ”
In high school, Njuguna started working at the Hayward Library as an intern. While looking for a second internship last year, she was recommended to the African Library Project, an organization that coordinates book drives to establish libraries in African schools and villages. Njuguna was hired as an intern, and she says she was amazed by the stories of people who were gathering books for her homeland—and she decided that she, too, could help educate people in Africa. “I wanted all my friends and cousins to have a place to read like I did.”
Last year, as a high school junior at Impact Academy of Arts and Technology, Njuguna set out to gather books for Africa. She worked diligently, raising money at bake sales, reaching out to students, and organizing a drive at her church. Her goal was 1,500 books; she ended up pulling together 5,000 books that have been distributed to three countries in Africa: Botswana, Ghana and Swaziland. “One of the things that’s awesome about Joy is she has a pan-African perspective already,” says African Library Project founder and president Chris Bradshaw. “A lot of people want to help a particular town or village, but fewer are willing to help anyone who needs it. All of Joy’s work has been for other countries.”
Njuguna, who hopes to be a doctor someday, says she likes to think that the books she donated—everything from nonfiction to novels—will help give people, and girls in particular, a new perspective in life. “Part of my goal with that project was to help women,” she says. “Their lives are really affected in a negative way because of a lack of education and a lack of encouragement. Women have early pregnancies because they are lied to [about sex]. Girls are vulnerable.
“One book can change your life,” says Njuguna, who has not returned to Africa since her move as a child. “You can learn something that changes your mind. I just see that education is a way to open up women’s minds more and make them know that they are in control of their lives and that they can make things happen.”
Kristin Kloberdanz is a freelance writer based in the San Francisco Bay area. She has written for Time, the Chicago Tribune and Forbes.com about everything from economic crises and political snafus to best summer beach reads.