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Two kids share a book

When books arrive for the very first time

In November of last year, a small village in the rural Dowa district in Malawi opened its first library and many people saw new books for the very first time. Our Head of Communications, Emma Taylor, was there and in this blog she reflects on the experience and our excitement to be part of the next step in a journey toward reading and learning which began in 2002 with one simple article in the Guardian.

In 2002, Malawi was gripped by famine. Like many villages across the country, the rural community of Gumbi in the Dowa district found itself with little food. That year, journalist John Vidal travelled to the country to report on the famine. He was inspired by the community’s determination to build a future free of hunger through education and wrote about his experiences in the Guardian.

Here in the UK, Guardian readers responded to the article in response to John Vidal’s article and the Gumbi Education Fund was born.

Today, much of Malawi remains desperately poor and food insecurity continues to be a challenge. Across the country adult literacy stands at just shy of 66% and the country ranks 170 out of 183 countries in the Human Development index. Yet, in Gumbi and the surrounding villages there is huge hope for the future. Thanks to the Gumbi Education Fund, the area has schools, teachers, university students and thanks to a partnership between our charity and the Gumbi Education Fund, school and community libraries stocked with brand new books.

Last year, I travelled with John Vidal to witness the opening of one of the libraries the Gumbi Education Fund built in the neighbouring village of Mphako and see how the brand new books we provide are helping people change their own lives for the better.


New library
Excited readers wait for the new library to open


Mphako and Gumbi are located several hours from the country’s capital, Lilongwe. For most of our journey there, we bumped along unpaved roads. The vast majority of buildings in Mphako and Gumbi were built from mud bricks with thatched roofs and the electricity poles had ended miles ago at Lilongwe’s city limits.

Schools around Gumbi and Mphako are very poorly resourced and the vast majority of families can barely afford to feed their families, so purchasing books is simply not possible. As a result, most of the people in the area would only ever have held a textbook or newspaper before. On arrival in Mphako, it was clear that the prospect of the library opening was causing huge excitement.

The village elders had been gathered, traditional drummers and dancers had been summoned and dozens of children were gathered waiting curiously to see what might be in the new library for them. Before the library’s ribbon was cut, we were treated to traditional dances and singing with a real carnival atmosphere!


Ribbon cutting
Before the ribbon was cut, there was a celebration which included traditional dances and singing


While I have visited several locations where we provide books, this was my first time seeing a community experience books for the first time – and their response was truly inspiring. Despite a burst of rain, children poured into the library as soon as it was opened, much to the alarm of the volunteer librarians who struggled to keep order and stop them walking mud into the freshly cleaned space!

But it simply wasn’t possible to contain the children’s excitement and in the end we all simply let them pull all the books out. They explored them together, scrambling over one another for the chance read about the adventures of Peppa Pig, look at pictures of helicopters and read aloud about astronauts and tractors. The wonder on their faces as they saw children’s books for the first time was incredible and was an experience that I will not soon forget.

Mphako with its dances, packed library and singing is a powerful reminder that books are a cause for celebration. Many of us live in a book rich world, accustomed to instant access to the vital information, beautiful illustration and interesting photography which ignited such excitement in Mphako. Their enthusiasm reminds us not to take that access for granted – and that the power of books to open doors, enrich lives and help ambitious communities build a more prosperous truly is something to celebrate.

We would like to congratulate the Gumbi Fund on their fantastic success building libraries, supporting education and changing lives in Malawi. We hope to support the fund’s work creating more libraries in the future – and even join in a few more celebrations!

To find out more about how books are changing lives in Malawi, join us at Hay Festival on 26th May where we’ll be appearing alongside John Vidal, Gumbi Fund Administrator in Malawi, Patrick Kamzitu and author Bettany Hughes.