Senegalese thirsty to learn find an oasis in a simple library
In a nation of 40 percent literacy and great poverty, students read novels in lunch-break installments at this struggling civic institution.
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More people live here, in this city on the outskirts of Dakar, than in the capital itself. And more arrive daily from remote villages and even poorer neighboring countries.Skip to next paragraph
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“There are people who want to access books,” Ndiaye says, “who are too far in the interior of Pikine. Sometimes they don’t have money for the transportation. Sometimes they don’t have time.”
But he says, there isn’t any funding, and there aren’t enough books.
“Books are expensive,” he says, “and we need the infrastructure: a building, the management system, personnel.”
“We’ll do it,” he says, “little by little.”
• • •
The Pikine library’s newest acquisition is a full set of Larousse encyclopedias in French, donated by the American Embassy.
(Before, the library’s only encyclopedias, also a donation, were in English, which isn’t spoken in this former French colony.)
Now students from middle- and high schools can research in the language they learn in.
(But the encyclopedias are 16 years old and don’t mention the end of South African apartheid.)
On a weekday at lunchtime, it’s clear that, whatever else may be lacking, demand is high.
Schoolbags pile near the entrance as students stream in. Young girls cluster around picture books, older students sit individually, bent over more weighty tomes.
Bintou Hane, a 19-year-old high school student, traveled more than half an hour by bus to get here on a recent day. She signed up for her first library card.
“I’m a senior now,” she said. “Joining the library will help me cultivate myself and improve my vocabulary.”
She handed over the $2 fee and a photocopy of her national identity card, but she had forgotten two ID photos.
The librarian, Moussa Fall, a college student who volunteers here when he’s not in class, looked at her sternly, but granted her the membership – if she’d bring the photos as soon as possible.
Mr. Fall gave Ms. Hane a tour, indicating the books for borrowing and those that are in too high demand to lend out – like the new encyclopedias and any book by an African author.
“You can borrow two books at once, and you can keep them for 15 days,” Fall said, “but then you’ll have to pay $1 for every day it’s late.”
This day, Hane was only allowed one book, for one week.
She laughed: “Don’t you trust me?”
Fall laughed, too. “Of course we do.” But he wasn’t kidding. “We need to make sure you’re serious.”
Hane had just enough time to skim the shelves and pick out a book – “On ne Badine pas avec l’Amour” (No trifling with love) by Alfred de Musset; “I read a book by him at school,” Hane said.
Then she headed back to school.
• • •
When Ngone Niang, one of the volunteer librarians, was a student, she never went to a library.
Pikine’s library didn’t exist, and she was too young to venture the hour to the capital on her own.
She now works full time at the library, unpaid.
A former literacy trainer for UNICEF, she’s been unable to find paid work, a common situation in a country with more than 60 percent unemployment.
Unmarried, she lives with her parents, and says that working at the library “is better than sitting in the house all day.”
She recently completed two days of training in cataloging books and online resources at the US Embassy.
“I knew about Google,” she says, scanning some printouts, “but I never knew how to find photographs of authors and print them.”
There is no Internet connection at the library. Borrowed books are painstakingly logged by hand in an oversized register.
But Ms. Niang says she has Internet access at home and plans to make author exhibits with photos she prints there.
“This is the beginning,” she says, “and at the beginning everything is harder.
“But I have courage.”
Courage, she says, to do a job she thinks is worth doing unpaid in the hope it will one day be funded.