When Emmanuel Cheruiyot ’21 first came to Colby from rural Kenya, he was asked one question again and again: Have you read Harry Potter? He hadn’t. He hadn’t even heard of the fictional wizard. The question made him feel ashamed and out of place. Now, he’s found a way to turn that embarrassment into action and ensure other Kenyan children don’t miss out.

Thanks to a Davis Project for Peace Award, this summer Cheruiyot will take a $10,000 prize to his Rift Valley community—burdened with high illiteracy rates among children and adults—and construct a library to create a culture of reading where none currently exists.

“Just building a library for a community—I feel like many people don’t really realize how much impact that can bring,” he said. “I expect to see better writers, better readers, and better thinkers … who are ready to solve the problems we face as a community.”

Cheruiyot, a psychology and environmental policy double major, plans to build the library at the existing centrally located Tumoiyot Primary School, which has government-funded electricity and 24-hour security. Community volunteers, including a local mason, will help construct a library with a concrete and tile floor, walls of stone blocks mined from a nearby quarry, and a roof with extended eaves.

The new building will protect the library’s books, computers, and toys from the weather and from termites, both of which destroyed the previous library, denying Cheruiyot access to cultural and academic resources as a young boy.

Once the library opens, Cheruiyot plans to implement a self-sustaining program of volunteer reading tutors consisting of recently graduated high school students looking for opportunities during their compulsory gap year. These tutors will work with illiterate adults as well as with children to promote literacy across generations.  

“They always say that change begins with one person,” Cheruiyot said, but he knows for the library to flourish, it will truly take a village. “I want to bring in my fellow youth who went through the same school so we can brainstorm and find solutions to our challenges.”

Growing up in Bomet, in what he calls an impoverished and marginalized community, life was difficult. “I experienced a lot of challenges as a young boy,” including a five-mile run to his primary school each day, said Cheruiyot, now a member of Colby’s cross country team. “I want to be one of those people who are trying to find solutions. … I don’t want these children to suffer anymore,” he said of the youth in his community. “They cannot speak for their future, but I can do it myself.”

Cheruiyot may not be familiar with Harry Potter’s wizardry, but when he returns to Kenya this summer, he’ll bring his own kind of magic. “I know my community is not going to remain the same again.”

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Projects for Peace is an initiative open to all students at the partner schools of the Davis UWC Scholars Program. The initiative was the vision of philanthropist Kathryn W. Davis on the occasion of her 100th birthday in 2007. Davis wanted to challenge students to work toward lasting peace through self-designed summer projects that address the root causes of conflict. Through a competition on more than 96 campuses, selected projects each receive $10,000 in funding.

For more information on Projects for Peace, see davisprojectsforpeace.org.