Island artist strives to ‘give back’ and create a library for an African village

Some of the children of Nkhandwe Village in Malawi surround Olivia Pendergast, a Vashon artist who painted several people who live there. “I feel really moved to create an amazing library there,” she said. - Courtesy Photo
Some of the children of Nkhandwe Village in Malawi surround Olivia Pendergast, a Vashon artist who painted several people who live there. “I feel really moved to create an amazing library there,” she said.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Vashon artist Olivia Pendergast has painted dozens of pictures that attempt to capture the beauty and spirit of villagers who live in one of the poorest countries in the world.

Now, in an effort to give back — to thank those who have patiently posed for her photos and readily allowed her to paint them — she’s working to create the village’s first library.

With the help of the African Library Project, Pendergast is trying to collect 1,000 books for a primary school in Nkhandwe Village, Malawi, a small, landlocked country in southeast Africa where half the population lives on less than $1 a day. 

Pendergast, who spent six to seven months a year there between 2007 and 2009, said she came to love the people in this densely populated village where she and her partner, stove-maker Peter Scott, worked. She also realized that she wanted to do more than hand out “pencils and money,” as she put it, to the dozens of villagers she had grown close to during her many months in the village.

“I kept thinking, ‘What can I do that would make a difference for everybody, rather than just pay for one child’s school?’” she said.  

As she looked around, she said, she realized a library based in the school but supporting the entire village would offer something meaningful. People in Malawi, a former British colony where English is one of the official languages and literacy rates are high, are hungry for books and “ravenous to learn,” she said.

Now, with the support of a nonprofit that has a track record of ensuring that books intended for a village actually get there, she has begun her campaign — 1,000 books by June 1. 

What is she looking for? 

She wants children’s books, of course, preferably ones that include pictures or drawings of people of color. 

She wants paperbacks, because they’re cheaper to ship. She wants books that address basic issues that might be helpful to people who live in a village with no indoor plumbing, little electricity and a subsistence, agrarian lifestyle: books about health, biology, knitting, agriculture, bicycle repair, alternative power.

She’d also like books on soccer. “Everyone there loves soccer.”

Preferably, the books would have lots of photographs or drawings and not be terribly technical. Most adults, she said, have a fourth- to fifth-grade education level. And ideally, she said, the books would not contain much in the way of American cultural references completely foreign to a small African nation. 

“They don’t know most of the stuff that we’re even talking about, like Santa Claus. They don’t know what a chimney is,” she said. 

Pendergast has put a collection box at the Vashon Bookshop, hoping Islanders will contribute. But she’s not relying solely on contributions. She’s also begun visiting Goodwill, where she can buy books for 35 cents apiece, Half-Price Books and other affordable outlets in an effort to collect the kinds of books that she believes will be most helpful and enjoyable. 

“I feel really moved to create an amazing library,” she said. 

Pendergast, 40, moved to Vashon a year ago with Scott, a bit of celebrity in the international aid world, where he’s won acclaim for his work as a stove-maker striving to find appropriate technology that can enable people to cook on stoves that are both efficient and safe. 

But she’s hardly in his shadow. A prolific painter who will soon have an exhibit at the Blue Heron based on her recent travels to Haiti, Pendergast creates large-format oil paintings, many of them pictures of women or children with solemn, quiet expressions and elongated necks, arms or legs and in warm, rich hues.

She’s loved painting people in Malawi, a country that’s been dubbed “the warm heart of Africa,” where people are friendly, expressive and physically beautiful to her, she said. 

“I’m moved by their faces. I just find them stunning,” she said. Painting in a country as poor as Malawi, she added, “breaks my heart but in a good way.”

Now, as she works to find books that will create the village’s first library, she’s both excited by the contribution she might be able to make as well as humble about what it is she’s trying to do. She wants to help the village, she said, “But they don’t need to be saved.”

“I’m an artist who visits their country,” she added. “I’m just trying to be of service where I can help.”


How to help

Donate books at Vashon Bookshop. Olivia Pendergast can also pick up books from people’s homes or accept cash donations. Email her at 




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