Submitted by Janet Lee, Chair, International Library & Cultural Exchange Interest Group, Dean, Regis University Library, Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, Ethiopia
Each of us has come to this interest group because we have a passion for travel and a passion for libraries. Many of us have had the good fortune to have worked in or set up libraries abroad. Some of these projects have been very successful. Some have become sustainable. Some have not. We have seen libraries that are filled with users. We are aware that some of these same libraries lose their appeal once we leave, books go unread and seats are empty. Yet we return and try again, each time with measured optimism. There are so many roadblocks in the developing world: few books, even fewer trained staff; a lack of a reading culture; little electricity let alone Internet; no public funding; and few local language materials. Yet when the magic happens and a child and a book come together, it is all worthwhile.
I recently picked up a book, “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind” by William Kamkwamba, a young man from Malawi. I had a copy of his children’s book that I picked up at a book signing, but had not read his memoir. William lived in rural Malawi and had a somewhat normal African childhood, until a great famine happened, the government changed, and his family could no longer afford his school fees. He and his family faced starvation and did their best to make a living through subsistence farming. He loved taking things apart and putting them back together: radios, bicycles, anything with parts. He tried sneaking into school despite the fact that he had not paid his fees, but was caught and kicked out. Rather than play games, drink or smoke, he discovered the library.
“I started wasting time in the trading center playing bawa. Someone also taught me a wonderful game called chess, which I started playing every day. But chess and bawa weren’t enough to keep my mind occupied. I needed a better hobby, something to trick my brain into being happy. I missed school so terribly.”
“I remembered that the previous year a group called the Malawi Teacher Training Activity had opened a small library in Wimbe Primary School that was stocked with books donated by the American government. Perhaps reading could keep my brain from getting soft while being a dropout.”
“The library was in a small room near the main office. A woman was sitting behind a des when I walked in. She smiled. ‘Come to borrow some books? She said. This was Mrs. Edith Sikelo, a teacher in Wimbe who taught English and social studies and also operated the library. I nodded yes, then asked, ‘What are the rules of this place?’ I’d never used such a facility.”
“Mrs. Sikelo took me behind a curtain to a smaller room, where three floor-to ceiling shelves were filled with books. It smelled sweet and musty, like nothing I’d ever encountered. I took another deep breath. Mrs. Sikelo then explained the rules for borrowing books and showed me the collection. I’d expected to find nothing but primary readers and textbooks, boring things. But to my surprise, I saw American textbooks on English, history, and science; secondary texts from Zambia and Zimbabwe; and novels for leisurely reading.”
“I spent the day coming through the books while Mrs. Sikelo graded papers at her desk. Despite the variety of titles, I left that afternoon with books on geography, social studies, and basic spelling—the same textbooks my friends were studying in school. It was the end of the term, and my hope was to get caught up before classes started again.”
Eventually, William found a physics book that together with his imagination and ability to take things apart and put them back together allowed him to build a windmill that produced electricity to light his family’s house. His reputation spread and caught the attention of faculty and journalists and ultimately he returned to school and ultimately came to the U.S. and attended school at Dartmouth College.
Had it not been for that library, the teacher/librarian, and that physics book, William might have remained uneducated and a farmer for life.