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School Libraries

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.

January 11, 2008

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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