This article was published by our friends at Africa.com, who have agreed to its republication here. View the original article on their Africa.com Blog. This is the last entry in a four-part series. Previous entries: Part I, Part II, Part III.
“One of the most precious gifts to a community is a library that offers free access to the treasure of knowledge.”
-Dr. Augustine P. Mahiga, Tanzanian Ambassador to the U.N. at the dedication of the Jifundishe Free Library, July 4, 2009
In a country where development can be frustratingly slow and good intention can be easily derailed by miscommunications, cultural differences and logistical setbacks, what does one do when one finds a program that works? Replicate it!
Providing quality education to children has been a long-time commitment of Stephen and Judith Smith, founders of the U.S.-based Crawford-Smith Foundation. In 2006, at age 69, Judith traveled to Tanzania from her home in southern California to photograph a performance troupe at work. She had no idea the sharp turn her life soon would take. From the moment she met Deb Kelly and experienced firsthand Deb’s Jifundishe project, she was hooked. “I came home and told my husband Stephen, who was 73 at the time, we were going to help Deb develop educational opportunities in Tanzania. He was floored. And that led to our support of the building of the Jifundishe Free Library. And now we’re building a series of community libraries.”
To accomplish this goal, the Smith’s have teamed up with Dr. Augustine P. Mahiga, the former Tanzanian Ambassador to the United Nations and current U.N. Special Representative for Somalia, and Ann Hanin, a librarian from New York City, to create “The Maktaba Project.” Their mission: To provide educational opportunities to adults and youth by replicating the Jifundishe Free Library model in at least six additional rural communities across Tanzania.
“I’ve never been able to get over some of the schools,” says Judith. “There may be no chalk, and perhaps one teacher and four books to serve dozens of children. Exam scores are dismal. We may not be able to fix the schools, but we can build libraries.”
In September 2009, Dr. Mahiga introduced the Smiths – and Jifundishe – to Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete. The Maktaba Project now has the endorsement of Kikwete, who has agreed to provide land and a librarian for each of the six new community projects.
The Maktaba Project fits well into the Tanzanian government’s plans to address the severe teacher shortage in rural areas by establishing long-distance learning networks via the Internet. A fiber-optic cable is now being laid across the country to support this initiative. The hope is that, if provided electricity and internet access, these community libraries will be able to connect rural villagers with teachers in Dar es Salaam and Arusha.
Outside the scope of the Tanzanian government’s Library Services Board and often in hard-to-access remote areas, community libraries have never before been networked in Tanzania. In fact, prior to February of 2011, there was no documentation at all about most these “off-grid” libraries. “No one really knew how many there were, exactly where they were or what resources they had,” says Sarah Switzer, 28, an American volunteer who spearheaded a recent conference for community libraries in Tanzania with assistance and funding from the international nongovernmental organization Book Aid. “When we started trying to pull people together, we only knew about seven community libraries in Tanzania. We spread the word through friends of friends, emails, cell phone texts, etc. and soon we discovered 15 more.”
Switzer is one of a handful of Tanzanians and Americans who has been working to create a “sister” organization to the successful and growing Ugandan Community Library Association, led by Kate Parry, founder of the U.S.-based non-profit Friends of African Village Libraries. “This workshop was the first attempt ever to formalize a national Tanzanian Community Library Association (TaCLA),” says Switzer. The TaCLA is an independent organization unaffiliated with the Tanzanian government.
“Our biggest challenge is that our members are scattered across some of the most rural areas of this country,” says TaCLA’s newly elected volunteer coordinator Rahim Niah, a 34-year-old husband, father and university student from Dar es Salaam. “Our work is to disseminate information, share best practices and help each library find ways to get more funding.”
During the conference, the Jifundishe Free Library shone as the model example. Jifundishe’s library manager Elibahati Nnko, 28, led discussions about possible ways to tackle community libraries’ main challenges of how to deal with the lack of training for librarians; the need for more books, text books and relevant materials; how to accommodate people with special needs, including those who are blind, deaf or confined to wheelchairs; and how to become self sustaining.
“Bringing meaningful and relevant library services to rural villagers is a new concept in Tanzania,” says American librarian Ann Hanin, 67. “The Jifundishe Free Library is an exciting and successful example of what is possible.”
The site of the Maktaba Project’s next library is the village of Kisarawe, about an hour west of Dar es Salaam in the mountains. The Smiths and Hanin recently visited the village to meet with the regional commissioner and local primary and secondary school directors to begin to establish what they hope will be the foundation of a library board.
“We need to send all of these people to the Jifundishe Free Library so they can better understand our vision,” says Judith. “By experiencing Jifundishe, they will be able to grasp that we are talking about more than just building a space to house books; we are talking about creating a vibrant center that will provide extensive educational and vocational opportunities people of all ages, and that – ultimately – will foster a community of life-long learners.”