Thursday, September 8, 2011

Uganda: He Built a Public Library for His Village

American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, said, "Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path, and leave a trail." The life of Francis Kigobe, 43, a resident of Ajija in Buikwe district, could just as well have lived up to what Emerson was rallying for.

The reading culture in Uganda is so waned that the saying, "If you want to hide anything from a Ugandan, put it into a book," has passed into common usage. Public libraries, which are mostly located in elite-citizen-infested towns, have largely been shunned and left only to students revising for examinations.

You would thus not expect to find a public library, boldly sitting, in the middle of a green-belted country side, where a large section of the populace is not even literate. But there is. In Malongwe town, found in the newly created Buikwe district, (which does not have a single metre of tarmac on any of its roads), you will find Caezaria Public Library sitting by the dusty roadside, shrouded in the midst of green shrubbery, as if it is joking. That is the effort of Mr Kigobe. The shyly smiling, hawk-eyed farmer, cum mechanic, cum entrepreneur, is the "crazy" man who saw it fit to set up a library for a people that could not even read.

For Mr Kigobe, the library is a sort of dream come true for something he has wanted to give back to his society. "I got the chance to go to good schools and there, we had good library facilities. But whenever I came back home for holidays, there was no place I could read from, or even get books. That's what made me start this library."

And in 2002, he made reality of his plan. "When I started building the library, most of my friends thought I was constructing a maize processing mill. When I told them it was a library, they said I was crazy," he says.Why would anyone put his money into something that would not make any returns, many wondered. But I knew what I wanted to do," he says.

How it all began

To get his library rolling, he looked no further than his very own collection of books and magazines. And with that, he launched a new chapter in Buikwe. "I started with my books. I had books like "Abbot" (actual name is Physics and author is Abbot), which I was using while in high school. I also got a few magazines from China, like Professional Pilot, China Africa and World Poetry and I decided to start with those," he says.

"But after starting," he adds, "I faced the challenge of inviting people to come here to the library. The adults, who had never used libraries before were very difficult to convince. Some schools were also hesitant to allow the pupils to come here. In fact, most parents thought the library would instead spoil their children as they would come here and learn immoral acts."

"I started with Sunday school. I would go and tell the children to pass by the library after church. I would give them a few magazines with lots of pictures. Children love that. They would take that home, show their friends and parents, who would then ask where they have got them. Those would in the end bring their friends." But that was still not enough. He went into marketing drives. "I targeted events like soccer matches at the fields and then would carry a shelf and display books. That way more people came to know about the library," he says.

At first, Mr Kigobe charged a paltry fee of Shs200 per book for borrowers. But they defaulted nearly all the time. He soon relaxed the rules and allowed visitors to borrow without charge, he says. Mr Kigobe started with a Senior Four graduate as his only employee. Three years after he started, he contacted the National Library of Uganda for professional help. The organisation then advised him on how to run a professional library. Through the National Library also, he was connected to international library agencies, Libraries across Borders and Under the Living Tree, who currently help him pay his three employees, an un-qualified librarian, a coordinator and a security guard.

He started with 36 magazines and 10 text books. Now the catalogue has over 10,000 items, he says. His library boasts such sections as Fiction, Politics, Literature, Economics and an internet café too. Caezaria library stretches across about 70ft in length, with the shelves aligned along the walls, leaving room for long wooden chairs and a few tables in the middle.

From the outside, the library gives off no sign of what it is, save for its name. The incomplete footing from the onset, with protruding earth bricks and dented veranda, is like the deceptive covering that can easily make one write off whatever is held inside.

Ms Gertrude Kayaga Mulindwa, director of the National Library of Uganda, commends Kigobe on his initiative. "Ugandans have become tired of not receiving services and decided to do something about it. They are saying that if we are not being provided with the services that we require, let's see if we can start our own small library where we can go and read," she says.

When asked what drives him, Mr Kigobe says, "I love to see that all people are well. I love to work with people and see them all develop." By choosing to construct a library, in of all places, Buikwe, Mr Kigobe propped up a service for a people that did not even know they need it. It may not have succeeded in turning the residents of Buikwe into information seekers, but that does not cheat its role. Francis Kigobe stepped into the void of service delivery left by the state, building the bridge across the waters of illiteracy, for his folk to cross. He went where there was no road, created a path, and is now leaving a trail.

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