Interview with Karim

Interview with Karim

An interview with Karim Ajania, Founder of Pencils for Africa

by Olivia Ramsay, Member of the Advisory Board of Pencils for Africa

Forward by Thomas Thwaites, inventor of The Toaster Project.

Chiswick & Bedford Park Preparatory School, London, UK, Art Exhibit

I have always loved the idea of frugalis creativus. It is so true that creativity cannot be purchased with extravagance. There must be frugalis. And this I have also found to be true about creativus in my over 60 years of performing in the theatre:

… Creativity makes us feel active and alive and the more creativity we practice the more alive we feel. 

Professor Jeremy Geidt, Harvard University

Englishman Jeremy Geidt was educated at Wellington School and the Old Vic Theatre School where he taught for many years. Jeremy co-founded Yale Repertory Theatre were he taught generations of actors including Meryl Streep; he then went on to co-found the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard where he currently teaches and performs. 

Foreword by Thomas Thwaites

I’ve been thinking a bit about the provenance of Pencils for Africa.

From where did this new plan spring? Well, I’m not sure if ‘an idea’ can ever be fully traced, but perhaps one thread could go like this: there was someone called Douglas Adams who wrote a book in 1983 that was read by a 14 year in old in 1994 and which inspired him in 2009 to make a toaster, which referenced an essay by Leonard Read, I, Pencil, written from the point of view of a pencil in 1967.

This intrigued someone who was editing a magazine and someone who had been planting trees in Mozambique since 1996, to think about pencils, and to start a scheme to send used pencils to children in Africa… The Brick Project founder, might never have been receptive to the essay I, Pencil, had he not written a poem about a dustbin in Mr. Baird’s class at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School in London, UK at the age of 7 when had recently arrived from Kenya.

Well, that’s one way of putting it…

Ideas end up in the dustbin - but Pencils for Africa may have begun with a dustbin!

The start, end, middle - even the dustbin - could be described and traced in infinite number of ways and still accurately reflect the way in which Pencils for Africa began. What’s important, is the completely unpredictable transmission of ideas through writing and images. This transmission has led to Pencils for Africa .

What tool enables the transmission of ideas in the simplest, most robust way..?

I am giving that honor to the pencil.

Pencils for Africa will enable the transmission of ideas - from someone back to themselves when working something out in a drawing or piece of text - from a child to their teacher - or perhaps from someone to someone else… Who knows where that can lead ?…

Thomas Thwaites


Part of Chiswick & Bedford Park Preparatory School Art Exhibition at the Bedford Park Festival, London, UK (all photos courtesy of Headmistress Catherine Sunderland)

Karim’s Interview - by Olivia

Note: All color images of both children and artwork on this webpage are courtesy of the Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School website.

The following is an interview with Karim Ajania, who is the Editor-in-Chief of Brick Project. Karim wrote the majority of pencil articles on this Pencils for Africa site. These include The Pencil Maker based upon his experiences teaching wildlife conservation to Maasai children in Kenya; as well as The Pencil Tree which is written in the Indian folk tradition of Classical Sanskrit Literature which Karim studied at Harvard University.

I was curious as to the source of inspiration for Karim – what compelled him to initially write The Pencil article, which propelled into a series of over 10 pencil related articles and ultimately launched the momentum for this Pencils for Africa website. Today, Pencils for Africa conducts interview through it’s own Editorial Team of middle school students, has an Editor-in-Chief, Nicolas, and a Board of Directors of which I am a member.

Olivia: Karim, what made you want to write that first pencil themed article called The Pencil?

Karim: I would not have written The Pencil had it not been for a poetry teacher I had at the age of 7 in England, by the name of Mr. Baird.

Olivia: I thought you were born in Africa?

Karim: Yes, I was born in Nairobi, Kenya but I was sent off to school in London, England at the age of 7. I have written about this in an article entitled Cicero’s Corner:

One moment I was playing soccer barefoot in Nairobi as a young child, speaking excellent Kutchi and accent-less Swahili and very poor pidgin English in an embarrassing sing-song sprinkled with lots of  ”golly gosh” and “goodness gracious, isn’t it” – then suddenly – at age 7 – I get shipped off to school in London, England and I am learning Latin and Greek and Tudors and Stuarts.

Olivia: Tell me about the school you attended in London?

Karim: The name of the school is a mouthful: Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School. It was a very positive experience for me – the education was of a very high standard but it also emphasized character qualities. The teachers were extremely supportive - English was not my first language and I really struggled with it when I arrived at school in London.

Olivia: I recall that I first contacted you after reading your interview with Terese Capucilli, a faculty member at the Julliard School in New York City. I was of course fascinated by this article because like Terese, I myself am a dancer and a dance teacher.

For me to read that Terese had danced with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev, and had such a stellar career was incredibly inspiring! Terese is such a fascinating and accomplished dancer.

Karim: Yes, I got to see Terese dance with all these ballet legends when she and I were at Martha Graham Dance Studio in the 1980’s. Exactly right Olivia: As an interview subject Terese was “incredibly inspiring” and yes, she is “fascinating” and “accomplished” – and that was precisely the problem…

Olivia: The problem in what way?

Karim: The problem with needing to be challenged as a writer. You see, when a writer has a fascinating subject to feature you can feel a little fraudulent because you are relying on the powerful subject matter – in this case the magnificent Terese – to tell your story for you. I had just had two such interviews in succession: previous to Terese I had conducted an interview with Janet Echelman who I had also known in the late 1980’s when we were classmates at Harvard. What Janet and Terese both have in common is that they are extravagantly talented and abundantly accomplished and prolific. In a way, that presents a creative handicap when I write about them because I can’t go wrong. I cannot fail. Even if I write a really bad article lots of people will still read it because the subject matter is so compelling.

Olivia: Interesting. So what you are saying is that writing about a very accomplished and gifted subject means you can just relax because Terese or Janet are going to draw a large readership no matter what you do?

KarimPrecisely. You can’t stay sharp. You go soft.

OliviaHow does this fit in with Mr. Baird - and poetry class at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School?

Karim: In my first poetry class with Mr. Baird at the age of 7 at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School, he took the entire classroom outside. It was a dull English autumn day. Mr. Baird then assigns his class a dustbin as the subject of their life’s first poem.

Olivia: A dustbin !

Karim: A dustbin – a garbage can, a trash can.

Olivia: Did you all write a poem about the garbage can?

Karim: Yes we did, eventually. But first we all protested vehemently at his choice of subject. Why the dustbin? Why not the beautiful rose bush nearby in the garden which was still blooming in the early autumn? Or the summer swallow whom we miss? Why not the lovely scuffed and rustic red brick houses and the tall Tudor buildings adjoining the school? Why a drab and dreary dustbin? Why?.. We kept protesting.

Olivia: What did Mr. Baird say?

Karim: I think he anticipated all the protests because he went quiet - grinning to himself mischievously. I venture he was enjoying it. Then he says two words in Latin:

Frugalis creativus“.

Olivia: What does that mean?..

Karim: In Latin it means “Frugality and creativity”. He then continued: “I want you to write about this dustbin because if you can write a poem about a dustbin you can write a poem about anything.”

Olivia: So for you, writing about a pencil was now like writing about a dustbin in Mr. Baird’s class - yes?

Karim: Yes, that is exactly the right comparison. When I was working on the layout of the interview with Terese it struck me that I was getting away with featuring yet another (after Janet) fascinating subject, which carried the readership and did not really demand much of me. That is when I remembered Mr. Baird and I thought to myself: what subject can I find that is not glamorous and accomplished like Terese Capucilli or Janet Echelman? What subject is really mundane and ordinary and even – like a dustbin – almost invisible and unnoticeable to us? Something inconspicuous that we take for granted…

Olivia: That is how you thought of the pencil?

Karim: I had a pencil in my hand because I always sketch out the planned layout of text and images when I prepare to publish an article. And so I looked at the pencil in my hand and I thought: “Mr. Baird would like this – I can see him grinning wherever he is now and saying “well - go on then, let’s see you write about a pencil for a change… instead of all these glamorous and accomplished ladies - do some real honest word-smithing for a change!” That’s how I imagine he would talk to me if he were still alive! And soon after, I noticed the essay I, Pencil on Thomas Thwaites’ website.

Olivia: So writing about a pencil made you reach into your own imagination rather than relying on the fascination with the subject matter?

Karim: Yes, and I think that was Mr. Baird’s premise back when I was at Chiswick and Bedford Park Preparatory School. An ordinary pencil, at first, is nowhere near as interesting as the world-class ballet dancers or artists and sculptures of our time… not until you reach into the maganimous role the pencil has played in all our lives and how many people it touches, albeit quietly, unassumingly and inconspicuously. In that sense, Mr. Baird was telling us to do the equivalent of ‘taking out the garbage’. He was assigning us a task that demanded we look within our imaginations and make that garbage can as profound and poetic as possible. It’s no fun task taking out the garbage - but it is very necessary.

Olivia: Yes, taking out the garbage definitely keeps you grounded and clear-headed.

Karim: A core component of the work being done with Pencils for Africa is environmental. On an operational and functional level, this is a ‘recycling‘ initiative because you are recycling used pencils into creative, literary and numerical utility. It is an efficient use of waste resources.

Olivia: Good to know! Finally, what is your favorite quote?

Karim: My favorite quote is from Marcus Tillius Cicero:

Assiduus usus uni rei deditus et ingenium et artem saepe vincit.

Olivia: What does that mean in Latin?..

Karim: “Constant practice devoted to one subject will prevail over intelligence and skill“.