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By James Mburu and Virginia Ngindiru, Zizi Afrique Foundation

We are in desperate need of a community library. There is not a single public library in Tana River county. To access one, we have journeyed to the neighboring counties of Lamu, Kilifi, and Garissa,” reported Madam Telita, the Principal Education Officer. Telita also doubles up as a member of the County Advisory Group (CAG) of the Accelerated Learning Program (ALP) for Zizi Afrique Foundation in Tana Delta Sub-county, a program aimed at improving foundational competencies in reading and mathematics for children lagging behind in grades 3-5. Madam Telita holds the program’s vision close to her heart – of children reading with understanding and reasoning with numbers.

Persuaded that libraries will transform the learning experiences for learners in Tana Delta, the CAG made the initial request for a community library in their area in 2019. This would not only bring the learners closer to books, but also reinforce the need for learning continuity beyond classroom walls. Fast-forward to 2020, at the height of COVID-19 school closures in Kenya, and the library at Golbanti Primary School was officially launched, opening doors to a reading facility for learners in this community and beyond.

The Accelerated Learning Program sees children take part in short intensive bursts of intervention, aimed at helping them read with comprehension and reason with numbers within 30-50 days. To participate, target learners meet for 2 hour remedial sessions every day, outside the regular classroom. Once a learner attains fluency in reading a basic text, s/he exits the intervention. Resuming the regular classroom sessions, where no adaptations have been made to fully accommodate targeted instruction, means that it is likely these learners will again lag behind their counterparts. Libraries were seen as a first step to ensure schools inculcate a culture of reading for all children’s at school, and with regular access, contribute to higher competency levels amongst learners post intervention.

Mr. Mdzomba, the head teacher at Golbanti where the first community library was set up, applauds the effort, noting a positive contribution to literacy outcomes, learner motivation and interest in reading, interest in school and overall improvement in national examinations. “The school has improved in English as a subject and overall performance since we started using this library. We have observed learners embrace a reading culture, improve their writing and communication skills, especially in English”, he added. In only one year, the school enrollment increased from 707 to 774 learners. This story highlights the impact the library has had in this school.

Between 2020 and 2022, the ALP, through the Safaricom Foundation constructed and equipped 6 libraries. Recounting on what contribution this has had, our partners in Bungoma County, where a library was established at Matumbufu Primary School, acknowledge that “teaching and learning has become interesting and enjoyable. My fellow teachers feel energized when they can learn new ideas on internet and even help others discover and share ideas. Initially learners struggled a lot in languages especially in creative writing. However, they have learnt where the secret lies and now their free time is not only spent playing but also taking time to read the e-books using the computers and tablets”.

There is evidence, for instance in Australia and the United States, on the importance of community-based learning environments for supporting family engagement and improving opportunity access in areas of high need, thus bridging inequity in underserved communities. Notably, the 3 counties of focus under ALP are ranked among the bottom 10 in the Uwezo 2016 learning report. Largely, these are counties affected by prolonged periods of drought, hunger, high levels of illiteracy, teacher shortage, long distances to school and poverty. These bottlenecks continue to affect learning outcomes in a big way. Establishing libraries is one way to consciously arouse interest around literacy, through a multi-stakeholder approach involving local leaders, community, school leadership and well-wishers in these communities.

What we have observed in less than two years since the first libraries were set up is increased interest in reading and school, with more learners visiting the library and reading than before. We have also successfully supported schools to actualize the library hour for each grade, as envision in the daily school routine. Further, the interest amongst teachers as they visit the facilities for their personal research is a notable milestone.

In reimagining the role of libraries, we have equally learnt several lessons. To begin with, the need for a paradigm shift with regards to perceptions around the resourcing of libraries. There is higher tendency to equip libraries with curriculum textbooks, at the expense of reading materials that promote creativity and nurture a love for reading. Yet we know, beyond curriculum, reading widely contributes to an all-round individual. As such, sensitization is necessary to broaden the perspectives on the range of resources to be availed in libraries.

Secondly, ICT infrastructure has not always been a key consideration when launching libraries especially in low resource settings. By providing desktops, tablets and internet connectivity, libraries answer to a wider range of needs. Teachers embrace them as a resource for their day-to-day work and gradually integrate technology into their instruction. Conversations have begun on how the libraries could start generating income through services to the community and such earnings channeled to service the costs of internet and purchase of more resources.

Lastly, a negotiation to ensure the library is always accessible is necessary. In regions struggling with teacher shortages, we have seen schools engage students to support the library management, positively increasing access to the facility. Even as this happens, the concept of ‘community’ is yet to be fully embraced. There are fears that opening up to the general public may poses a security risk. In setting up community libraries, a multi-stakeholder approach works in ensuring information is shared across board, resource persons to champion the use of such facilities nominated and guidelines for operationalizing the libraries co-created at the community level.

Borrowing from Jorge Luis Borges, “I have always imagined that paradise will be a kind of a library”, we aspire to create this paradise and bring it closer to learners furthest behind. Even as we pursue this, we are constantly asking ourselves, what can we do differently to appeal and make the libraries the go-to place any time?

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