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.

Ricci Shryock
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.

Pikine, Senegal

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.

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.

“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.

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