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Community libraries can help spread literacy across Africa

Kitengesa is a tiny rural village of subsistence farmers in Uganda about 80 miles southwest of Kampala. There is no electricity and few inhabitants have access to running water.

Kitengesa is a tiny rural village of subsistence farmers in Uganda about 80 miles southwest of Kampala. There is no electricity and few inhabitants have access to running water.

Schools in the area are poor: they severely lack resources and adequate infrastructure. Furthermore, Kitengesa is cut off from any urban area that can provide additional resources to aid in education.

The closest city, Masaka, takes about 25 minutes to reach by motorcycle (boda boda), costing roughly 2,000 shillings - the equivalent of a day's pay for someone without a university education.

The vast majority of the youth in Kitengesa are unemployed, making it virtually impossible to afford transportation outside of their village. This results in a low number of children who have access to supplementary resources, such as books and computers, from outside of their communities.

This lack of exposure is a major setback to education and is a fundamental reason why these rural inhabitants are unable to compete with their counterparts in urban areas, let alone top tier private-owned schools within the country.

If you ask the youth of Kitengesa what they want most in their community, the answers will all boil down to resources - textbooks, notebooks, newspapers, novels and, of course, computers.

It was in this village that Dr. Kate Parry, an English professor at Hunter College in New York City, and Emmanuel Mawanda, headmaster and director of Kitengesa Comprehensive Secondary School, decided to start their community library project.

Both Parry and Mawanda are passionate about improving the level of education within the area and understood there was a severe lack of books for children to read.

Parry, a dedicated advocate for improving literacy around the world, writes in her editor's preface to Language and Literacy in Uganda: Towards a Sustainable Reading Culture (2000): "Language is fundamental to human life; a child without language is severely abnormal; a community without language cannot exist. And where, as in Uganda, there are many communities with many different languages, it is of cardinal importance to develop means of mediating among them."

In 1999, the project began with a tin box containing 161 books written in English and Lugandan. The books were lent to students who were encouraged to take them home and read aloud and share with others.

Every year the collection of books expanded but there was no library to house them. However, in 2000, the United Nations One per Cent for Development Fund donated money for the construction of a library.

Subsequently, Daniel Ahimbisibwe was hired as a full-time librarian, running the centre day-to-day. In 2004, the library received a further grant from the One per Cent Fund to install solar panels on the roof of the building. Solar panels have been an important addition for the library as it is currently the only facility in the village with electricity.

This gives it a level of prestige within the community and helps increase membership.

Kitengesa Community Library now has over 4,000 books and is a member of UgCLA (Uganda Community Library Association), a network of similar rural libraries within the country. Connecting these libraries through UgCLA has provided a forum for communication where libraries can learn from each other about innovative programs, fundraising strategies and effective ways to draw more members.

The library remains a small, grassroots organization but has come a long way since the project began in 1999. Its initial goal has remained the same: to increase, enhance and encourage the reading culture within the area.

The library focuses on maintaining sustainable programs and has managed to partner with the University of British Columbia, which sends students over to maintain the regular classes that are held throughout the year.

Classes include: children's library days for primary school kids, adult computer classes with local women's groups, family literacy, a straight talk class for youth, games nights and library programs for secondary school students. There are also plans for community workshops that deal with nutrition and other health-related issues such as HIV/AIDS awareness.

These programs help supplement the education system in the area, accelerating development by providing information to community members. The library works closely with local women's groups and encourages young women to get involved. The goal for many of the women's group members is to continue to strengthen their computer skills.

The library has a number of Alphsmarts computers to aid in computer typing. There is also a Library Scholar program that nominates seven secondary students at a time.

"Library Scholars" have their school fees paid for in exchange for 10 hours of work per week. These students are nominated based on academic potential, financial need, trustworthiness and interest in the library.

There are countless isolated communities just like Kitengesa. This library provides a model that can be replicated anywhere.

As stated by CUNY Matters, Kitengesa offers a modest "Kodak moment" in the arduous efforts to spread literacy across Africa. A community library is barely noticeable with regards to the continent, however by continuing to network with other similar institutions, it can offer endless potential for rural communities across the continent.

The library's website is

Jeff Leake was raised in Tsawwassen and is currently volunteering at the Kitengesa Community Library.