We are delighted to announce that in 2016 we will once again begin supporting Sierra Leone’s libraries with brand new, carefully selected books. Our Director Alison Tweed reports on setting up new relationships and partnerships in Sierra Leone to help the country rebuild after the impact of the Ebola crisis.
“I guess what I’d like to say is that people in Sierra Leone …want to send their kids to school; they want to live in peace; they want to have their basic rights of life just like everyone else. I think we all owe an obligation to support people who want to do that.” Ishmael Beah (author of A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier)
In December 2015 and in March 2016 I made two visits to Sierra Leone, to evaluate the state of libraries and of book availability in the country and see whether Book Aid International could once again play a part in supporting public libraries, schools and higher education institutions. We have not worked in Sierra Leone since 2007, when the UK government ceased funding the organisation, which led to a strategic decision to focus on our work in East Africa.
Sierra Leone is emerging from the recent widely-reported and devastating Ebola crisis which resulted in nearly 4,000 deaths in 2014 and 2015 and resulting major disruptions in education (schools were closed for an entire academic year), commerce and many of the traditional ways of life, and creating many thousands of orphans and out-of-school children.
Given this I was delighted, on my arrival in Freetown, to find a flourishing national library service, managed by the Sierra Leone Library Board (SLLB) with 20 branches across the country.
Many of these libraries are new and they all have lending, reference and even basic children’s sections. Much of the collection is old but well looked-after and clearly well-used. Some have computer centres which are internet-connected, some have computers but no internet.
Membership of all the libraries outside Freetown is free and books (mainly novels) can be borrowed from the lending library. SLLB has also done much to promote the service in imaginative ways: for example, all libraries have motorbikes on which the librarians visit local schools, community groups and in some cases even housebound individual users!
However, there is still much to be done to encourage wider use of libraries, especially by children. Having a supply of well-targeted, relevant and brand-new books from Book Aid International would certainly go some way to support the work SLLB is doing and I agreed we would support the Library Board with an initial donation of around 30,000 books in 2016.
“I grew up in Sierra Leone, in a small village where as a boy my imagination was sparked by the oral tradition of storytelling. At a very young age I learned the importance of telling stories – I saw that stories are the most potent way of seeing anything we encounter in our lives, and how we can deal with living.”
Ishmael Beah (author of A long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier)
While in Freetown I also visited the University of Sierra Leone. Fourah Bay College, one of the three faculties, was the first institution of its kind in West Africa, established in 1827 as an Anglican missionary school and educating many prominent West Africans. It is now a constituent college of the university and has over 6,000 students. Sadly the library building, with its magnificent situation overlooking the city, has suffered hugely from lack of maintenance and a persistently leaky roof. I therefore agreed with the VC, Professor Thompson, that the university texts we would donate should be housed temporarily in the central public library for the students to access until such time as the college library was renovated.
Schools in Sierra Leone have been particularly hard hit by the impact of the Ebola crisis, with most closing for an entire year to limit infection within communities. This of course has a huge effect on children’s education as well as affecting their social interactions. However a large number of NGOs are running programmes to help children back to school, support girls in their quest for an education or provide basic teaching for the most deprived communities.
One such community-based organisation, Save the Needy, is working in 10 schools in Freetown and the country’s second city, Bo, and I visited some of these schools accompanied by the founder Mrs Violet Lenger Forfanah. The schools, situated mainly in Goderich district, have few, if any, resources; children lack not only textbooks but also reading books, exercise books and even pencils. Save the Needy is reaching out to these schools and raising funds for support and we agreed to work with them to provide collections of books and reading materials for their schools programme. It was clear that a donation of brand new, bright, and appealing books would make a real difference in these classrooms.
What was very clear to me on my visit, aside from the irrepressible optimism of most Sierra Leoneans that the future would be better, was the vital importance of education and access to information in rebuilding the country for the long term. If we at Book Aid International can support the librarians who are working in schools, universities and public libraries to make books available to their communities we will be proud that we are able to play a small role in these steps towards a better future.
As the librarian at Makeni City Library declared proudly: ‘We are bringing the libraries to the people, all over the country!’ And so they are.