If you want to see a community at work, check out the Lubuto Library on a Saturday morning in Lusaka, Zambia. Architect Eleni Coromvli has created traditional thatched structures to form the library garden compound. She explains that a Zambian home is not just one building but several with a covered outdoor space for family and friends to socialize.
The U.S. public libraries that I know, refer to clusters of computers as “the campfires of the 21st Century”, or the new places to tell our stories. In the Lubuto Library sturdy laptops line the circular walls. The children working there are often recruited off the streets by Kenny Hau, who was once a street child himself.
As outreach coordinator, he listens to the stories of traumatized children, counsels them and connects them to additional services as needed. The library stands next to a neighborhood school, so it’s difficult to tell whether the children working at the computers are homeless, out-of-school orphans or are children who attend school daily but hunger for more books and access to technology and the arts.
On the Saturday morning I visited the library, a professional artist offered some pointers to older children bent over detailed pencil sketches. Two older boys explain to guests how they created the graphics to illustrate 100 lessons designed by librarians and teachers that are aligned with the national reading curriculum.
These reading lessons help those who know the basics practice; and help those who don’t start the process of learning to read. With help from a $300,000 USAID All Children Reading Grand Challenge grant, the Lubuto Library has worked with experts like Dr. Joseph Mwansa from the University of Zambia to align these lessons with the new Zambian reading curriculum, entitled the Primary Literacy Program. Let’s Read, Zambia is the national media awareness and community outreach program in support of the new reading curriculum for Zambia.
In the main reading room, children sit elbow to elbow listening as two volunteers read aloud, “That’s Not My Hat” and “The Giving Tree.” I tried my hand at a participatory story that I’ve been telling since I was the same age as these volunteers and a volunteer myself at Saturday morning story hours in small town Iowa. In the picture you can see us ‘searching’ for elephants. The children slapped their legs and swished their hands as we went looking for an elephant to capture on film with our imaginary cameras.
Thomas Mukonde, the Library Services Advisor, took me on a tour of the stacks. He’s going to school to get his degree in library science. There are easy reading books in local languages like Bemba and Tonga as well as biographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela. When they were told about the original texts of Zambian books in U.S. libraries, they arranged to download them into the Lubuto database so anyone can see and read them. They plan to connect to the Internet with the help of some private partners.
Outside the Library the children presented a play about a grandfather who tricks his grandchildren into digging his garden.The actors turned into tomato plants, then became the hawkers at the local market selling the tomatoes. A crowd of more than 50 children gathered to watch.
The director of the play is a local high school student and volunteer at the library. This is Lusaka’s second Lubuto Library. A third is operating in the south and they are looking for space in the northern province as well. No matter what country, a free library is the soul of a community. It protects the past, preserves the present and assures the future. In order to teach a million Zambian children to read better, they need to practice. Lubuto gives them a place to do just that.