“Books are a very important way to knowledge and to self-improvement… The provision of a National Library Service in Tanzania means that … knowledge is made available to all our literate citizens and through them to people who have not yet learned to read.”
–Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, 1967
As babies, we chew and drool on our tiny board books. As toddlers, we color and rip the pages of our beloved nightly readers. By ages six or seven, we are reading and have graduated into a new world of wonder and discovery.
Over the course of our lifetimes, there are few activities on which we will spend more time than reading. We read to learn, work, escape, entertain, evolve, explore, and connect. From our morning newspapers to our letters, e-mails, favorite paperback novels, computers, and Kindles to our nightstand piles of literature and magazines; from Shakespeare, Sartre, Shelley, and Salinger to social psychology, sports, science, and everything in between, the written word is as essential to our lives as water, food, and shelter. (At left, a photo of used books in Tanzania. All photos from Anne Wells.)
Now imagine a world where there are few, if any, written words. There are no books, no magazines, no newspapers, no Internet, and no textbooks. Imagine it. In this year of 2011, when most of us are hyperlinked and “content-ed out” beyond reason, is this even possible?
Welcome to Ngongongare Village in the Arusha District of northern Tanzania. Here, as it is in so many other impoverished outlying communities across the continent, there are few, if any books. Schools are overwhelmed with too many students, too few teachers (an average of one to every 45 students, according to the UNESCO EFA 2000 Assessment Tanzanian Country Report), and even fewer textbooks. A report by the non-profit organization Textbooks for Tanzania states, “It is not uncommon for a class of 40 to share a single textbook.” The Newton-Tanzania Collaborative that operates under the Do Something umbrella estimates a textbook to student ratio of 1 to 80. Texts that do exist are often decades old, filthy, and falling apart. To keep them from disintegrating altogether, teachers often keep them under lock and key, pulling them out only to copy their contents on blackboards for masses of children to memorize or, if lucky, to copy down on scraps of paper.
In the United States, there are 122,101 libraries, according to the American Library Association, ones that complement our educational systems by providing free access to literature, periodicals, the Internet, and ongoing educational opportunities. That’s one for approximately every 2,500 citizens.
In Tanzania, it’s a different story. There is just one national central library in Dar Es Salaam; a single library in some of the country’s 26 regions; and a handful of other government libraries scattered throughout various districts, which at best would be one library serving many hundreds of thousands of people. The Tanzanian Library Association, in its 2008 SCECSAL XVIII report, notes that these libraries all face many challenges, including a lack of qualified librarians and adequate resources.
“We visited a number of regional libraries in Tanzania,” says Ann Hanin, 67, a librarian at the Beacon School in New York City and the founder of Project A.B.L.E., a U.S.-based non-profit established to promote literacy and education in the developing world. “They were filled with old, dirty, dilapidated materials that most people find irrelevant, unnecessary, and unusable. We could not find any books on farming and agriculture. We could not find any books by African authors or in local languages. It was so sad and disheartening.” (At right, photo of children in an old library)
Deb Kelly, 55, an American volunteer in Tanzania, experienced firsthand this great need for free-access to relevant books and educational opportunities. In 2007, she founded the Tanzanian non-governmental organization Jifundishe (which means “teach yourself” in Swahili) to provide educational opportunities to rural communities. Her first project, the Imbaseni Free Community Library, was so successful that she soon replaced it with a larger library, with financial support from the U.S.-based Crawford-Smith Foundation and Project A.B.L.E. Villagers came from miles and miles away, even from around the world, all to patronize, partner with, assist, and help grow Deb’s vision of a free library and community center that supports literacy development for all.
Today, that library, the Jifundishe Free Library, is the model for a new initiative called the Maktaba Project (“library” in Swahili), which is currently working on building a network of “Jifundishes” in six more rural communities over the next 10 years. The Jifundishe Free Library is also the poster child of the new Tanzanian Community Library Association, formed independently of the government in early 2011 to develop a network of community libraries, disseminate information, share best practices, and help obtain necessary financial support.
Coming up this week in the Beyond Books in Tanzania series:
- Part II: Deb Kelly and the Jifundishe Free Community Library
- Part III: “What a Difference a Library Can Make”
- Part IV: The Maktaba Project and the New Tanzanian Community Library Association
Anne Wells is the founder and director of UNITE The World With Africa, a social organization working to provide impactful connections, resources and expertise to help advance women’s health, education and microfinance programs in Tanzania. She recently launched a new online store called the Ashé Collection, a 100 percent philanthropic initiative to grow an international demand for African artistry and raise funds to support UNITE’s work in East Africa. For more information, email Anne at firstname.lastname@example.org.