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The Children’s Peace Libraries of Rwanda
Kirsten Mandala and Henry Hays-Wehle, Extended Service Volunteers

On a hot summer day in 2009, over 200 students crowded onto the lawn of the Quaker compound in Kicukiro, Kigali, Rwanda, to celebrate the opening of the first Children’s Peace Library of Rwanda. As a DJ, soccer ball, and crates of soda kept most of the students occupied, groups of ten at a time filtered into the tiny room housing 199 books. So rare were children’s books in Rwanda that many children did not know how to hold the books right-side up. In the first months of operation, it became clear that this small collection would require a full-time librarian. Most days saw the shelves literally empty, with every single book checked out.

But little by little, the library grew. AGLI volunteers coming from overseas stuffed books into suitcases, and the Mennonite Central Committee donated a sizable collection. Three-and-a-half years later, the Children’s Peace Library of Rwanda is now the Children’s Peace Libraries of Rwanda. The library has four branches spread throughout Rwanda and a collection of thousands of books. Many books have also been given to schools around the country. Each library partners with local schools to make students and teachers aware of the resources available.

The Kigali library, now occupying a space ten times the size of the original room, remains the largest library, boasting over 2,200 books on the shelves. The library patrons, numbering over three hundred, come from seven local primary schools. Two libraries in the Western Province (Rubavu district) were opened in 2011 with approximately 1,500 books between them. They draw a crowd of over 500 students from 10 local schools. The newest library, the Children’s Peace Library of Byumba, located in the Northern Province (Gicumbi District), houses only 400 books and has been open less than three weeks at the time of writing, but has already been visited by over 500 students.

When I enter in the library, I forget all my matters and my problems. I like reading because it gives me my imagination. It makes me feel like I’m in the book, playing in the book like I’m an actor. When I’m sad or unhappy, I take a book and I read and I forget everything! It’s like I forget that the world exists, and I’m in my imagination. When I wake up in the morning, I say, today I will go to the library because then I can stay in my home reading books. Reading books makes me happy, smiling. When I take a book there, I go out the door smiling, my heart beating every time I see my book that I’m going to read. Then I will spend many hours in my room without moving, reading. Rebecca, 15, student

Learning English
Students flock to the library not only for the chance to look at a bright picture book, but also for the English language practice. While reading for fun stimulates creativity and imagination, it also enables the development of English proficiency.

Rwandan children grow up speaking native Kinyarwanda. Until recently, Rwandan children learned French as a second language in schools. Four years ago, hearing English in Rwanda was unusual. However, embracing the language of the East African Community, the Rwandan government decreed in 2009 that English would become an official language, and that all Rwandan students must begin to study English. A two-year transition period allowed for daily English lessons in schools. January 2011 marked the beginning of English immersion, with instruction in all school subjects officially switched from Kinyarwanda and French to English. Two years later, students still struggle to understand school lessons and science textbooks in English, with no firm grounding in the language. Rwandan teachers, moreover, rarely speak fluent English, so instruction is often shaky.

The Peace Library aims to be a space where children can practice and enhance their English skills. Librarians in all four libraries help students with vocabulary and comprehension during library visits. Students who visit the library frequently report that this exposure has helped them to perform better in school. Rosine, one of the Kicukiro library’s earliest and most devoted patrons, recently placed first overall in her class at the College of George Fox of Kagarama (CGFK), earning a place at secondary school in Butare. Shimimana, 13, another student at CGFK says that when he sees words he didn’t learn in school on tests, he tries to think back to the books he’s read in the library.

Programming for Peace
The vision of the Children’s Peace Libraries’ program is to see a positive transformation and a sustainable peace among Rwandan children in their families and society. Therefore, in addition to providing educational materials, the Children’s Peace Libraries host peer mediation and conflict resolution workshops for students.

Programming at the libraries gives students the tools and knowledge necessary to resolve conflicts, both their own and their peers’, peacefully. Using a series of games, role-plays, and lessons, peer mediation workshops lay the foundation for understanding conflict and the facilitation of its resolution. Students are taught about the role of conflict in everyday life, escalation of conflict, mechanisms for effective communication, and mediation techniques. Students practice these skills with the help of facilitators with backgrounds in mediation. The Libraries also teach a conflict resolution curriculum (based on the Alternatives to Violence Program) to encourage youth to consider their individual identity, role in conflict, and ability to foster loving relationships despite existing conflicts. Themes of community building, trust, identity, diversity, prejudice, conflict resolution, and world peace are emphasized to encourage young people to think about conflict on intra- and inter-personal, community, and global levels.

Reaction to the curricula has been overwhelmingly positive. Two years after 2009’s inaugural Conflict Resolution curriculum, students in the Kicukiro schools were seen still carrying their now much-worn AVP “Steps to Transforming Power” cards. As Rimana, 14, a student at CGFK, says of Peer Mediation training, “they trained us how to solve conflicts. My colleagues and I have few conflicts, and when we have them, we solve it. I helped two friends of mine who were in conflict at school, and now at school they are ok. They have peace and we are friends.”

The Future of the Children’s Peace Libraries
After the libraries’ clear initial success, library staff hopes to expand both network and capacity. At the moment the staff continues to develop partnerships with other organizations, with the goal of bringing many more books to Rwanda. An additional need is funds to buy locally produced Rwandan books that are part of the school curriculum. When asked for feedback, students consistently respond that they would like even more books and more space to read.

In February 2013, the fourth and newest branch of the Children’s Peace Library opened in Byumba (see article, “Besieged” on back cover). The goal for the Children’s Peace Libraries in the coming year is to construct a building in Byumba to serve as a permanent headquarters for the library network and to provide a larger space for the children of Byumba. Because all four libraries operate in rented space, their future is uncertain. Land is forever at a premium in Rwanda, Africa’s most densely populated country. Property ownership would provide long-term stability and protection from the skyrocketing rent costs afflicting other libraries.

Whether or not a new library in Byumba can be constructed, the Children’s Peace Libraries will continue seeking ways to increase the resources available to the young people of Rwanda. Rwandan culture does not actively encourage reading, and most students who visit the library have grown up in homes devoid of books. Our library staff throughout Rwanda believe feeding imagination and curiosity leads to a more empathetic and compassionate understanding of the world. With this in mind, we hope providing access to books and conflict resolution programming will help this Rwandan generation build a peaceful future.