Dozens of kilometers from the nearest paved main road, in the midst of bush lands speckled with narrow dirt paths and tiny homes made of mud and sticks, sits the Jifundishe Free Library.
Nestled in the remote rural village of Ngongongare in the Arusha District of northern Tanzania, on a 2.7 acre plot with views of both Mt. Meru and Mt. Kilimanjaro, this 2,200-square-foot, yellow and cream-colored cement building is home to more than 5,000 books; textbooks for every subject through primary, secondary, and university levels; six new laptop computers that provide free Internet service, and assorted newspapers and magazines.
Out back, the manicured yard is decorated with gardens of flowering indigenous trees and shrubs. Dozens of people study at the six picnic tables and under the shade of the trees. Children chatter away in the nearby community room while exploring books organized in neat rows of colorful buckets on the floor, accessible to all. To the right, there is a small staff house and an outhouse for the latrines.
Each day, hundreds of villagers from ages 2 to 82 come here, often from miles away, to study, work, learn, and play. They fill the buildings, the tables, the stairs, the yard, and never a penny or shilling changes hands. This Jifundishe Free Library is one of only a handful of free, independent rural libraries in Tanzania. It is also the model for a new community library initiative taking place across the country.
Jifundishe (which means “teach yourself” in Swahili) began with the vision of a 55-year-old American named Deb Kelly, and is now a Tanzanian non-governmental organization that was created to provide educational opportunities to rural communities. Deb, who first traveled to Tanzania in 2001 as a volunteer, built the library in response to a request from local villagers. “One day in 2005, I asked some villagers what they wanted most,” recalls Kelly. “Their response? Not electricity, potable water, roads or even money. They wanted books!”
To test the waters, Deb rented a tiny building with two rooms from a local family for $15 a month. There was no electricity, shelves, or furniture, just an empty space. She called on her friends in the United States to send money and books, and together with a group of Tanzanian and American volunteers, Deb set about organizing a library.
“We sorted through the donated books—the nonfiction, fiction, children’s books, and textbooks—and separated the relevant, useful books from the useless,” recalls American librarian, Ann Hanin, 67, who incorporated the U.S.-based non-profit Project A.B.L.E. to raise funds for Jifundishe. “We catalogued books, arranged them on the shelves using rocks as bookends, placed the children’s books in baskets for easy access, trained the librarian, and we were ready!”
In November of 2005, the Imbaseni Free Library opened its doors to a curious village audience. “Most of these people had never seen a library before and really had no concept of what it was,” recalls Chrissy Burnham, 29, Jifundishe’s long-term volunteer and current treasurer. “The students were the most eager. Then the men came to read newspapers on the porch. Next, the children came to sit on laps and rifle through pencil boxes. The women were the most hesitant. They were expected to be home working. Many had never attended school. It took a few months, but eventually they made their way, staked out a few picnic tables on the lawn, and started engaging in literacy classes, women’s groups, and more.”
It didn’t take long before Deb and her team recognized the need for a larger space. “There were always lines of villagers, as far as the eye could see,” recalls Deb. “Thanks to the generosity of the Crawford-Smith Foundation, Project A.B.L.E., and many others, we were able to raise the $60,000 necessary to construct our new Jifundishe Free Library.”
In January 2009, the new, solar-powered Jifundishe Free Library opened its doors in the Ngongongare Village. The event was marked by a large ceremony that included the district commissioner and other local government officials, the Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations, local school representatives, villagers, and the library’s lead donors, Ann Hanin of Project A.B.L.E. and Stephen and Judith Smith, the founders of the Crawford-Smith Foundation.
Today, Jifundishe continues to fulfill its role as a vibrant and active library and community center by offering scholarship programs, independent study programs, eye and dental clinics, malaria prevention clinics, net distribution, book clubs, computer classes, women’s empowerment groups and classes, movie nights, children’s reading programs, and much more.
And, as it goes, nothing is left unused: the old Imbaseni Free Library building is now home to a village family.
Next in this four-part series:
- Part III: Beyond Books in Tanzania: “What a Difference a Library Can Make”
- Part IV: Beyond Books in Tanzania: The Maktaba Project & 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 email@example.com.