It Takes a Village -- and a Library: Developing a Reading Culture in Uganda | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

It Takes a Village -- and a Library: Developing a Reading Culture in Uganda

In the Ugandan countryside, dedicated educators bring the printed word to students desperate for access to the wider world.
By Kate Parry
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How do you pass on book learning if you don’t have any books? You write notes on the blackboard, or you dictate lessons. Your students write down what they can, then go away to study their notes, accurate or not. That’s how most students learn in Uganda. They come from villages where the schools are overcrowded and underfunded, and teachers are lucky if they have one textbook for every ten children.

To make things more difficult, all education beyond the most elementary level is done in English, a foreign language to Ugandans, and one that in rural areas is rarely heard outside the classroom. It is hardly surprising that only a minority of rural children gets into secondary school, and only a small part of that group goes on to higher education. Yet young rural Ugandans and their teachers alike yearn for access to the world outside their villages and, given the opportunity, will work hard to acquire the necessary knowledge and language proficiency to do so.

Almost ten years ago, the director of a secondary school near the village of Kitengesa, in southern Uganda, told me that his dream was to have a community library. I responded by supplying a box of books, and the Kitengesa Community Library was born. Later, thanks to the One Per Cent for Development Fund (underwritten and run by employees of the United Nations), we were able to put up a building and later equip it with solar panels so the library can be open at night, a dramatic symbol of the power of reading. Friends in the United States provided the money to buy books and newspapers, and to pay two librarians. They also pay school fees for seven students who, as “library scholars,” help run the library and, in the process, learn important skills.

In much of the world, libraries are taken for granted, but their appearance in up-country African villages only began during the past decade. In fact, it has only been since the 1980s that secondary schools have been created in most rural areas. (Before that, anyone wanting to continue school at that level had to go to one of the major towns.) But even today, those rural schools lack the kind of support outside of the classroom that lets students expand their knowledge of the world beyond their villages.

A Spirit of Studying

Most of the Kitengesa library’s users are secondary school students, and they are eloquent about how it has helped their education and given them a measure of independence: "When teachers don't cover the whole syllabus, you can find a book and read it," one student told me. "You can use the library for reference and check whether what the teachers have told you is true or false," another added. As a result, one young woman claimed, "the library has put us in a spirit of studying."

The success of the Kitengesa library is part of a heartening trend in Uganda. There are now several village libraries in the country, founded either by local people or by interested foreigners working with local colleagues. The libraries have different collections and reach out to their communities in different ways, but the same mission unites them: to enhance education in Uganda by developing a reading culture.

In August 2007, a national organization, the Uganda Community Libraries Association, was launched to provide training for librarians and distribute small grants. So far, eighteen institutions have joined UgCLA, a network through which library managers can exchange best practices and foreign organizations can gain access to help village community libraries.

UgCLA is associated with an even wider network through Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL), a registered not-for-profit organization in the United States that began its work in 2002 by setting up libraries in Burkina Faso. In 2006, it developed an East African branch that supports UgCLA and the Kitengesa library, as well as libraries in Tanzania. FAVL is inspired by the vision that libraries in villages throughout Africa will enable rural people to take charge of their own education and will provide a vital infrastructure for educational and developmental innovation.

To help develop relationships between individual libraries in Uganda and with other communities internationally, the Ugandan libraries, through UgCLA, can offer placements for volunteers and information about rural life in Africa, while the linked foreign communities can help with funding, materials, and expertise.

Kate Parry is a professor in the English department at Hunter College, City University of New York, and chairperson of the Uganda Community Libraries Association.

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Karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I realize that this piece talks about Kitengensa in Southern Uganda, but I would like to draw attention to the plight of the children in Northern Uganda as well. Some of you asked about how you might get involved in this war torn country. There is a group called Invisible Children that started in 2003/2004 by college students from San Diego. They made a powerful movie/documentary about the lives of children in rural village (Gulu, specifically) and could not let the suffering of the children go unrecognized. Check out there web site: http://www.invisiblechildren.com
They had their first teacher "exchange" last summer and are looking to pull a group together again this summer. They have raised millions of dollars to help schools in Northern Uganada be more safe and accessable to more children.
Please check them out!!!!!!!!

Kate Parry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Please contact the Uganda Community Libraries Association (see www.ugcla.org). We may be able to place a few volunteers.

Mukhobeh Moses Khaukha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hullo Friends of the world we Randa United Farmers Group (RUFG) WE are looking for any good friends to help us set and commplete our Library
Thanks rufgroup95@yaoo.co.uk 256 773 097171 Mukhobeh Moses Khaukha (Director)www.randafarmersug.co.cc

Estelle Stanhill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My grandson is in the Peace Corps in the Philippines teaching the children, and is in desperate need of books for the children. I have been collecting books and sent off the first large box last week (a major feat!) Can you tell me how to get funding for such a project. I would like to do this on an ongoing basis, but it gets a bit expensive. I have reached out to many sources, but, considering the state of our economy, it probably is not a good time to ask for money. If you could just give me some advice, I would greatly appreciate it.
Thank you - for considering this - and for all you do....
Estelle Stanhill

Deanna's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I go to Uganda every year to work with studnets and women in remote villages. It's a grass roots organization called Youth Focus Africa Foundation (YOFAFO). YOFAFO is building sustainable living communities in 5 villages - including a school, dorms, play areas, gardens, housing, and health clinics. We pack extra suitcases with 50-100lbs of books, educational supplies. The impact is immediate. The students will hold one pencil in their hands for the entire day. (bring pencil sharpeners because they sharpen them with knives otherwise). There is such an interest and enthhusiam to learn! It's refreshing really. www.youthfocusafricafoundation.com - there website is currently down but will be back up again soon.

Irma S.'s picture

It is so grat to find the website like this!
We have finished a small reading project in south west uganda. We had many workshops with children, teachers and parents. The main purpose of the workshops were developing reading culture in thre local communities/schools. It was so great! Children just loved books! We would like to continue - to establish small school libraries in four schools where we have already worked. The problem is that we can not collect many good quality books since we are not from english speaking country. Well, we bought all available books in the local language, we published one and we would like to publish another one in local language and engish (legends from the local area). We will buy some more books acoording to school needs.
We would also like to enable some teachers to run libraries (also some activities for developing reading culture).
Well, I was working in Primary School, I was runing reading activities, I was also working in school library, but the extra knowledge is allways very welcome.
Thanx so much
Irma

Suzanne Baraff's picture

Hi Irma- I am looking for a project for my 10-12 year old students that combines international collaboration and Web 2.0 skills. Could you use some involvement/support from our students? Let me know what you need.

Irma S.'s picture

Dear Suzanne,
Thanx for reply and willingness to collaborate.
right now I cant say what kind of support from your children could be helpful. Unfortunatelly, in the villages where we would like to establish libraries dont have electricity, so there are no chances for pen pals at the moment. I will let you know if I will get an idea. But if you have an idea in your mind, you and children are more than welcome.
Irma

Moses Wamanga's picture

I am a secondary teacher, author and leader of a community Based Organization dealing with promotion of reading culture. We have published books in English. We need partners to help us to fund publication in local languages.

We have started talking to students in rural areas of Busoga.

Any form guidance is welcome. Contact wwamanga@yahoo.com

Juliet's picture

I'm a parent, I realized the need to set up a library within the outskirts of kampala after realising that most of the schools had no libraries and those that did catered for well to do families that could afford to pay highly in terms of school fees, I've been saving some money and buying textbooks that could be of help to pupils in primary and secondary,sooner or later I can be able to realize my dream of offering a library to those that can not afford to buy textbooks every other year for each subject, I really need someone out there to help me realize this dream with their expertise and book donations. I believe setting up of community libraries will help our children develop a reading culture.

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