April 23, 2013

Books on the Move

Mobile libraries bring reading materials to communities in Rwanda

“A person who does not read is like a field left untilled.”

So says Bosco Nshimiyimana, an agronomist in Rwanda who employs five people to work his farmland. He understands that just as the soil must be fertilized for crops to grow, so must the love of reading be nurtured for literacy to take root.

Nshimiyimana was there to receive the first visitors to the library in Gicumbi, a district in Rwanda’s Northern Province. He now leads a committee of volunteers who manage the library and encourage children and community members to visit and borrow books.

By 2016, at least 80 mobile libraries like this will be established across the country by the Literacy, Language, and Learning (L3) Initiative, directed by EDC and funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development. The Peace Corps is facilitating the rollout of L3’s Community Mobile Library Project, in partnership with EDC, the Rwanda Education Board, and the Rwanda Reads program.

“The libraries will be shared by neighboring communities,” says EDC’s Jackie Lewis, who is based in Kigali. “They’ll be packed and shipped to the next place, which will have a space available with shelves, chairs, and light to read by.”

“The communities are really receptive to the libraries, especially the kids,” Lewis says. “When I went to the library in Gicumbi, more than 200 books had been signed out. Other people were coming in to read without borrowing. That was just about a month after the library opened.”

In early March, Lewis attended the opening of a second mobile library in Nyamagabe, a district in the Southern Province. To say that the community welcomed the books would be an understatement.

“Many people crammed themselves into the library room, with little hands grabbing books off the shelves!” recalls Lewis.

A third library has already opened in the Juru sector of the Eastern Province’s Bugesera district.

Creating communities of readers

The community libraries are an extension of EDC’s work with Rwandan education leaders to improve literacy teaching and learning in Rwandan classrooms. The L3 Initiative has developed improved curriculum materials for grades 1 and 2 in English, Kinyarwanda, and math, and will develop similar materials for grades 3 and 4. But reading outside the classroom is an important part of improving literacy.

In resource-lean countries such as Rwanda, children’s reading experience is often limited to textbooks at school, with few books available for parents and other community members to enjoy. Mobile libraries bring books to rural communities in districts such as Gicumbi and Nyamagabe, where families have few reading materials to share. “If homes have any reading materials,” says Nshimiyimana, “maybe they have Bibles or books of songs.”

“What’s so great about these libraries is the quality of the books,” Lewis says. “They were carefully evaluated and selected so that the themes are consistent with Rwandan culture. There are many books for children and adults, and they include both African and western authors.”

“We want children to have access to books that are age- and education-level appropriate,” said EDC’s Said Yasin in an interview in The New Times, the Rwandan news daily. “This will encourage them to enjoy reading, which will in turn impact their school performance and overall academic achievement.”

Reading beyond the classroom

The hope is that the mobile libraries will encourage parents, teachers, older siblings, and community members to model the habit of reading for young children. “Since the library is run by the community,” says library volunteer Niragire Elisabeth, “it shows that reading isn’t only for school.”

In Gicumbi, Nshimiyimana has already seen the impact on his four-year-old daughter, Laissa, who is in nursery school. “When I come to the library, she wants to come with me and take a book,” he says. “She likes it a lot!”

Laissa isn’t the only one. On the library’s busiest days, groups of children will line up outside the crowded library, eager to read and to have the adults explain their favorite stories. “When they see me reading,” says library volunteer Leocadie Nyirabihinda, “they are also encouraged to read.”

Primary school student Divine Uwimana says she would like to read these books with her older siblings: “When you read, you know everything.”