Turning urban space into a cultural hub

WHO ARE TONY PRATT AND THANI NGENCI

Incorporated in 1971 to restore libraries around the world, Teatro Espacio is recognized by UNESCO and has 18 branches in Kenya

Tired of sitting idle at home, fashion designer Tony Pratt set off on an odyssey to restore one of Kenya’s dilapidated and under-used libraries, which served as a place of refuge for Kenya’s residents during the 1950s and 1960s, in the name of culture, literature and education. She’d made a number of treks to Kenya since the nineties, but this one was particularly memorable.

“If you ask me which was my favorite trip – well, probably that one,” she says. She spent a year, much of it living in an old-growth forest near Nairobi. But it was the opening of the City of Dreams library that really piqued her interest in building buildings that provide public access to literacy, education and culture.

Tony Pratt

The City of Dreams is one of the largest library systems in Kenya, where it reopened in the 1960s with the help of British and French colonial powers. Abandoned and deteriorating, the library is now home to tens of thousands of people. The libraries served as safe havens for Kenyans to retrieve any or all books – public or private – that they’d misplaced, or just liked to read again.

“So it’s a UNESCO museum and it became a very poor neighborhood,” Tony Pratt says. “It was full of books, it was a place of safety and refuge. That becomes something we need to protect as a heritage, because it’s very emotional.”

Looking for a way to help this “incubator” for literature, Tony Pratt and Tanja Ngengi are the two women running Teatro Espacio, an organization based in California, California.

The most exciting thing to Tony Pratt about Teatro Espacio’s work has been seeing the improvements in the actual library space. It now looks relatively new and vibrant. The two women have spent much of their time there overseeing renovations, restoring a stunning piece of history.

“It’s a discovery in a sense that every day is a new new thing and it’s an amazing discovery, it’s like solving a puzzle and it’s a very fulfilling feeling,” Tony Pratt says.

Through years of hard work, they’ve earned a lot of respect. At the meeting room in their Nairobi headquarters, benches are full of ‘trucks’-sorry, ‘teachers’, who keep a watchful eye over the space. They ask questions – and they’re keen to share information. Their starting point for this project was that information can help people – and countries – move forward.

“There are a lot of things where we have shared interests with them, because it’s in the world’s interest to progress. The printed word and images have value. So that was one of the big guiding lights,” Tanja Ngengi says.

Understanding is both the team’s secret weapon and a central tenet of Teatro Espacio’s operations. They believe that the library’s role in society is as an anchor. That a national library allows people to comprehend the world.

“The written word and images have a value. So a national library is really central,” Tony Pratt says.

And that’s how Tony Pratt sees Teatro Espacio’s role today. Their projects have ranged from educational publishing to renovating 14 libraries in different countries and countries in South America. They started as nothing more than a book club in 1971. Teatro Espacio is a part of Tony Pratt’s life and work, and Tanja Ngengi is a retired school teacher and librarian, but in the long run, they believe it’s about humans together.

“This is something that we do together with the community that does make a difference. It’s also a public service. So that’s how we can get value for it,” Tony Pratt says.

This position will soon come to an end. Tanja Ngengi will soon be exiting the role of head of Teatro Espacio. Tony Pratt will be stepping into that role, while the organization conducts a nationwide recruitment. But she won’t be leaving Kenya behind. Tony Pratt has plans to return to open Teatro Espacio’s final new library: one in the nascent city of Thika.

Story by Kenyan journalist Kevin Mwaiza. This post is one of the current works from the Willingly Wednesday series

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