Libraries Give People Their Voices by Katie Isbester
In 1979 there was a revolution in Nicaragua. I pitched up there in 1984, young and dumb, wide-eyed and curious. In the intervening years, the new government had created a literacy campaign with the literate teaching basic literacy to others. The Literacy Campaign was so successful that UNESCO awarded Nicaragua with a prize.
It’s not clear what percentage of the population was illiterate. Undoubtedly the rural areas were substantially more illiterate than the urban, the indigenous Suma, Rama and Misquito more illiterate than the Spanish metizos, and women more illiterate than men. Figures up to 75% rural illiteracy were quoted but in truth, no one really knows. It was an unexamined populace. But it’s safe to say that illiteracy was a big problem.
Literacy doesn’t just permit someone to follow written instructions, raising productivity. That’s the least of what it does. By learning how to sound out words and the concepts that they embody, readers reach for understanding. This act is not rote, like the dull repetition of peculiar spellings. At its best, literacy enables the reader to name their own reality.
It’s counterintuitive really. Reading is a silent act. Yet, reading is integral to dignity, visibility and equality. Reading gives the reader a voice.
It all sounds rather fabulous, doesn’t it. Sadly, creating literacy was not quite as simple as sending literate city youths to the dispossessed countryside to teach the yokels their ABCs. Where I was teaching in a remote rural village, the celebrated new literacy had already faded. Without the reinforcements of on-going schooling and easy access to the written word, this extraordinary accomplishment had stalled and illiteracy surged back.
One day there was knock at the door and a young teacher popped her head in. She wanted to build a library. With books. Just to read. For everyone. To support what literacy we were building through the school but also, just because. I must have gaped at her, mouth dropping open. Electricity wasn’t reliable. Sewage ran in the streets. Students didn’t have pencils and paper. You couldn’t even assume that there’d be food in the market, should you have the money to buy it. Building a library was insanely ambitious.
Nonetheless, this small community found a room. A huge mural was painted, bright and inviting, celebrating the gift of books. And I trotted off to the capital to buy books on my own penny. The few copies I could find were added to by distant fundraisers until it became a flood of books.
The library became wildly popular. Kids played in it after school. Mothers went there for information and relaxation. Adults borrowed books to ease their down time. The library was part of the tour when foreign donors came, gaining the community a little more money. More importantly, literacy rates grew and this time, held. Supported by a library. Now the literacy rates for both men and women are up over 80%. Honestly, it puts a smile on my face every time I think of it.
If a reader has a voice, then a library has a choir, helping everyone to sing in harmony.
Please support Nasio’s appeal to build the first community library in Mumias West so that we can improve literacy rates and spread the joy that reading brings.