Transforming Work Through Service
As a child, I often thought I would be a missionary when I grew up-a missionary in the typical sense of the word. I figured I would travel to some faraway place in the southern hemisphere and work as a Bible translator or as a nurse to help transform people’s lives. What I never expected was to travel to a faraway place to help with literacy; yet, that is just what I did in 2012 and 2014.
Let me explain how I got there. In 2009, as a newbie academic librarian for the School of Education at Seattle Pacific University, I was excited to engage with students on their research needs. As I worked with new doctoral students, for example. I enjoyed getting to know their backgrounds and research interests. Each student would spend at least an hour with me as I posed questions and prompted them regarding their area of focus. One student from Tanzania, in particular, was a regular visitor. Kedmon Mapana was very persistent in stopping by to chat. During our times together, he shared about life in his home village of Chamwino.
Growing up in Chamwino, Kedmon never touched a computer. Until he went to college in the country’s largest city, Dar es Salaam, he did not have access to a library to use for study or to check out books, let alone computers with access to the Internet. As a doctoral student in the United States, he began to understand the importance of a library with books, and computers. He realized how literacy is transformative for majority world countries and that reading is key for literacy to develop (Krashen, 2004). During one of Kedmon’s visits, he shared how much he dreamed about providing 21st century library services for the students in the secondary school in his village. He then asked me if I would go to Chamwino to organize a library.
Initially, I did not agree to go. For the next year, he persistently and patiently asked me when I was going to “start the library.” I kept putting him off with various lame excuses. Mostly, my fear was that just because I was a trained as a librarian, it did not mean I knew how to set up a library. Eventually, I realized that Kedmon’s pleas presented an opportunity to fulfill my earlier desire to help with transforming lives. Consequently, I was no longer able to say, “no.” I emailed Kedmon, agreeing to meet with him to talk about his vision. Over lunch in our university’s dining hall, the conversation was energizing as he shared his dream for the library. We discussed many aspects of his plan, such as the efficacy of using a computer with library software versus a card catalog system. We talked a long time about how to make the library sustainable and how to establish a culture of reading.
There was much to think about and I felt woefully unprepared to take on the project. I had no idea what I was doing. In order to educate myself about libraries in emerging economies, the first thing I did after talking with Kedmon was to dig into databases looking for research on setting up libraries in African countries. To glean further insights on how to best approach this project, I shared the concept with several close friends who had travel experience in Africa. Most of these folks, well-meaning though they were, tried to convince me that there were many dangers introducing technology into a developing country. They felt that, rather than being a help, the introduction of technology in Chamwino would create a hierarchy of power with negative consequences. Kedmon assured me, however, that this would not be the case.
With little help from friends or databases, I turned to posting a plea on a librarian’s listserv---Education and Behavioral Sciences Section (EBSS) of the American College and Research Libraries branch of the American Library Association. Most of the emails I received, while encouraging, provided little in the way of concrete ideas. I then turned to a colleague at Seattle Pacific who provided me with the name of a friend elsewhere who co-edited a helpful manual offering detailed information and instruction on how to set up a library. With the beginning of a plan in mind, I made my flight reservation to Dar es Salaam and started praying...a lot.
Over the next few months, I continued researching about libraries in Africa and met with Kedmon on numerous occasions to discuss the details.
In early March, 2012, as a result of my EBSS listserv plea, a librarian from North Carolina emailed me and attached a copy of her dissertation titled, International Library Development in Africa: Benefits, Challenges, and Sustainability. I eagerly read the entire dissertation (including the references list), which provided a gold mine of helpful information and insights on things to consider when starting a library in an African country—things such as making sure the village chief is involved; making sure the headmaster and local education officials are a major part of the planning process; making sure not to do “book dumping” (a term referring to sending piles of useless books to a majority world country—something that happens more often than it should), and what to do when there is no Internet or there is only intermittent electricity. Further, she confirmed that international library development is vitally important for supporting literacy in emerging economies.
The time finally came and I set off to Tanzania with a rough plan, a suitcase full of books written in Swahili, children’s books in English, and a brand new laptop with flexible library software to use (with or without Internet) to manage a small library. While I had traveled abroad quite a bit, I had never been to an African country. At one point during the long flight from Seattle, I thought to myself, “What the heck am I doing?” I was a middle aged, white, American woman arriving in Tanzania, a place I have never been, at night, all by myself, and I knew no one. Thankfully, it was arranged for someone to pick me up at the airport and take me to a local hotel. After a good night’s sleep, Kedmon’s friend picked me up early the next morning to drive me to the bus station and arrange for a ticket on a “luxury” bus for travel to Chamwino, normally a 6 hour bus ride. Three hours into the ride, the bus broke down. For 2 hours I stood in the sun while bus repairs took place. I knew no one on the bus, I did not speak Swahili, and I had no way to contact the folks who were scheduled to pick me up in Chamwino. I resorted to more praying.
When I finally arrived in Chamwino, I was greeted by Mr. Komba, the secondary school headmaster. Joining him were two secondary school teachers, one of whom had been designated to work part time as one of the librarians. I spent the next 2 weeks in Chamwino walking every day to the secondary school to work in the library with Adela and Maurice—the two teachers appointed as part-time librarians.
During my walks, I attempted to speak a few words of greeting to the villagers in Gogo, their tribal language. The kids, especially, laughed at me as I mangled these greetings. And, on a regular basis, the little kids would laugh and point and say M’zungu (Swahili term for white person). Besides working closely with Maurice and Adela, Mr. Komba graciously drove me around to meet the district educators, and to pick up additional supplies for the library.
While exhausting, my time at Chamwino Secondary School was productive as I worked closely with Maurice and Adela to train them on how use the computer and the library software to catalog and check books out to students. They were excited as was I. Chamwino Secondary School library had a functioning library with books, brand new technology, and was being run by local villagers.
Since my trip in 2012, donated monies enabled the Chamwino Secondary School Library to acquire new tables, colored plastic chairs and several bookcases.
As a follow-up to my 2012 trip, I contacted Worldreader, a non-profit based in San Francisco working to bring literacy to majority world countries using mobile devices. I was able to raise enough money to provide 25 e-readers for the Chamwino Secondary School. Each e-reader holds 200 preloaded books written in English and Swahili. There are children’s books, young adult fiction and non-fiction items, the Koran, the Bible, books on health, HIV/AIDS, and textbooks for biology, chemistry and math. Each e-reader is, essentially, a mini library. Eventually, through the generosity of an anonymous donor in San Francisco, the school received an additional 50 e-readers, each with 100 books on them.
According to Maurice’s 2015 Annual Report, the 75 e-readers are having a positive impact on the reading culture at the school. “Before the arrival of the e-readers, students were not reading books in the library. Students feared the library. After the arrival of 25 e-readers the number of students reading in the library increased significantly. The e-readers are in great demand as student desire to read increases.” A culture of reading in Chamwino is starting to transform the lives of students by increasing their literacy. Additionally, not only is it a place where students come for the joy of reading, but the Chamwino Secondary School Library is also becoming a library that serves the entire village community with access to books, computers, and the wider world. The increasing literacy as a result of “starting a library” in Chamwino, allowed me to be a different kind of missionary and to be used by God to transform lives.
Krashen, S. (2004). The power of reading: Insights from the research. Westport, CT: Libraries Unlimited.
Cindy Strong is the liaison Librarian for the School of Education at Seattle Pacific University. She received her Master in Library Science degree from the University of Maryland in 2004. Before moving to Seattle in 2008, she was a high school librarian in Montgomery County, Maryland. As an academic librarian one of her passions is working closely with doctoral students in the School of Education regarding library resources. Besides reading, she and her husband love hiking in the Pacific Northwest.