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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.

By Naomi SeckContributor / December 2, 2008

Book lover: Fatima Ndoye comes every day to the Pikine library for her lunch break to read because she can’t afford a $2 library card to borrow the books.

Ricci Shryock

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Pikine, Senegal

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Fatima Ndoye has just finished “L’enfant noir,” a novel based on the childhood of Guinean author Camara Laye. She could hardly put it down – except that she hardly had the chance to pick it up, either. She has been reading it in borrowed snatches of time when she races across the street from her school to the Pikine Library during her lunch break.

This crude library – a 15-by-65 foot room in a concrete cultural center – is a treasure trove for the 14-year-old, who says she tries to read a novel a week here during hour-long visits. The daughter of a construction worker who earns $10 a day, she can’t afford the $2 library card nor the two passport-sized photos required to get one, so she reads the books in installments, a little every day.

Fatima, her blue school vest covering jeans and T-shirt, knows every corner of the library: She walks to a shelf that’s three-quarters full and tells a visitor, “these are the novels.” The shelf below, she says, are books about business. She wanders a few more steps, and indicates the children’s section, picking up a picture book and rifling through the pages.

“When I was little,” she muses, “I liked these books. But now I’m bigger and I’ve changed. Because you progress. You progress all the time. I’m 14 now, and I read much bigger books.”

• • •

This bustling – even crowded – lending library, cobbled together with hope, donations, and volunteerism, is evidence of how strong demand is for more libraries in Senegal, which, as one of the world’s poorest countries, has a 40 percent literacy rate. The single room off a sandy courtyard in the Leopold Sedar Senghor Cultural Center is the only public library in this city of 2 million.

Poverty aside, Senegal has a rich literary history. Among its celebrated authors is the country’s first president and a world-renowned poet and intellectual, Leopold Sedar Senghor, for whom the center was named.

There are many development programs, paid for by the government and international aid organizations, working to teach basic reading skills and to get more children in school. But the director of the cultural center, Pape Baba Ndiaye, says funding is needed for the next step in the process – giving people access to books and information.

“The government says it dedicates 40 percent of the budget for education,” Mr. Ndiaye says. “I would like to see more of that 40 percent given to books and public reading.” Currently his library operates on a tiny fraction of the cultural center’s budget of less than $40,000 and relies almost entirely on donations from nongovernmental organizations and embassies.

The state is doing what it can, he says. “There is a director of libraries, in the Ministry of Culture; there are library networks in the country.” But he says it just isn’t enough.
In a culture where stories are traditionally passed on orally, Ndiaye was fortunate to even have a model of a library to follow. He grew up in Medina, a crowded neighborhood in Senegal’s capital, Dakar, “not very far from the library network in downtown,” he says.

“Every Wednesday and Thursday evening, we didn’t have school, so that’s when we’d go to the library to read, to discover things. It helped us do our homework better.”

When Pikine’s current mayor was elected, he pledged to revitalize the library, which had been given space in the 1990s when the cultural center was built, but had long been ignored. Under Ndiaye’s direction, it reopened in 2005 with thousands of donated books. He says the library now has over 10,000 volumes, but a glance around the room suggests the true number is far smaller.

Ndiaye’s vision is to expand Pikine’s library into branches, one for each of the city’s 16 districts of sprawling concrete neighborhoods that are gridlocked with colorful minivan-buses, rickety taxis, boys selling newspapers between cars, and women selling peanuts on the sidewalk.

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