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Your location>Home>Publications>PeaceWays>Spring 2013

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Kirsten Mandala, AGLI Extended Service Volunteer

Daily we are besieged.

It begins with unerring consistency at 11:45 am and again at 2:15 pm. The fifteen to thirty minutes beforehand are a time of rising tension. We ready the check out table. We choose a guard for our door – an odious duty we do our best to share. We remove from the library anything personal and easily filched. We (futilely, always) organize the shelves as best we can.

And then it happens. We hear their voices, merging as one great hum from just over the hill at the Gacurabwenge Primary School. And then they arrive: primary school children, eager library-goers all, in a pack of at least fifty. Often one hundred or even half-again as many arrive in the span of two minutes. Sometimes it seems there are even more than that, but the number grows too big to estimate.
Let’s step back and confess we are writing this entry about two weeks too late, and that things have since improved. We’ll explain why later.

Our second week as an operational library (and first lending out books) both inspired and overwhelmed us. By the time we opened our week #2 doors on Monday 2/18, serious word-of-mouth had gotten around the Byumba primary schools about a place you could read books with pictures. We began check out on Monday, and by Tuesday even-less-believable rumors had gotten out, this time about how this library place would let you take a book home if you wanted to. Throngs followed up on these claims, arriving at the library and demanding to know the truth.

The two times mentioned above correspond to the twice-daily closing bell. Rwandan primary students attend school in shifts, half in the morning and half in the afternoon. Most children walk serious distances to school, and so tend to be hurrying on the way there. Most are additionally pressed to come home quickly, so they can be of use around the house. Hence the rush.

Some background facts on the Byumba branch of the Children’s Peace Libraries of Rwanda: we have one room. Said room is 15 men’s size-eleven flip-flops wide x 21 ¾ flip-flops long. We have one wooden chair and nine plastic chairs, two of which are required for the current iteration of our check out station. We have three bookshelves, each six flip-flops long and possessing five rows. We have just over 400 total books.

In short, we in no way have the resources to outfit hundreds of daily-arriving children with fun and age-appropriate books. But we are trying. After a day or two of enthusiastic (and we thought perhaps enlightening) chaos, we realized a handful of books had up and disappeared, and decided to cap the total number of kids in the room at any given time at a more easily-monitored fifteen, with a grace allowance of five extra for especially busy days. This made the crowd inside the library easier to manage, but created a brand-new problem just outside our front door, in that we now have a hundred-plus kids trying to squeeze onto our porch twice a day. This is especially problematic, as lines are not a feature of Rwandan culture. When a public bus pulls into a stop, members of the waiting crowd simply shove for primacy. This holds true for stores, market stalls, and sidewalks. The pushiest people reap constant societal reward.

So it follows, then, that instilling the idea of waiting in a respectful line in Rwandan children is not an easy process. The kids push and kick their way to the front of the mob, and they are not particularly gentle or furtive about it. We thought about whether instilling an evidently Western notion of quiet cueing was disrespectful and maybe imperialistic, then decided we didn’t really care: we are a peace library, after all, and a pushing-and-shoving mob at the front door doesn’t really gel with that notion. We’ve been working on it, though watching the line with eyes open for violence requires one of us for the length of the rush, and is tiring. Sending kids home book-less for shoving or hitting or rock throwing, as we’ve deemed necessary, is disheartening, especially if said kid has been waiting in line for over an hour.

Despite occasional violence from a handful of kids, most students are reasonably quick to grasp the no-pushing standard, and are willing to follow our rules if it ends with a book in hand. The enthusiasm for reading is moving. Many things in East Africa remind (our should, at least) an American of the usually-too-obvious-to-be-mentioned privilege gap we arrive with, but the packs of children willing to wait an hour or two (and often risk parental wrath over their tardiness in getting home; we’ve already witnessed a couple of ugly scenes) to gain admission is so striking that we can’t help but compare it every time. Can you picture one hundred kids waiting impatiently at a library front door somewhere on, say, the suburban east coast? We certainly can’t.

The enthusiasm humbles. How different our childhoods would have been, we can’t help but reflect, had we had access to only one book at a time, and that only after waiting hours. So we’re doing our best to keep the lines moving and get as many books in as many enthusiastic little hands as we can.

But man, are we tired.