November 16, 2017

Libraries Bring Access to AIDS-Affected Uganda Communities

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Nyaka students using the library’s ereaders
Photo credit: Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, an estimated 650,000 children in Uganda have been orphaned by AIDS. The majority of them are now cared for by their grandmothers. The adult literacy rate reported by UNESCO is 73.9 percent, and only 66.9 percent among women; these discrepancies are particularly acute in AIDS-affected populations. In an effort to address these issues, the Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project (NAOP), a nonprofit working on behalf of AIDS and HIV orphans in rural Uganda, has recently established two libraries for HIV- and AIDS-affected communities with support from the Stephen Lewis Foundation (SLF), a Canada-based nonprofit.

Known as the Blue Lupin Libraries—named for a flower that self-seeds, much in the way that literacy and learning spread—the Nyaka and Kutamba Libraries serve students, teachers, and caregivers, as well as the community at large and neighboring schools. In the absence of any other libraries nearby, they serve as the region’s principal source of access to books, news,  information, and technology training—and as community hubs where health clinics, teacher trainings, and support groups convene.

SLF recently brought together a number of its partners for a community library roundtable in Toronto, held September 27–29, to discuss their ongoing work establishing community libraries in AIDS-affected areas and visit the Toronto Public Library’s Parliament Street and St. James Town branches. Nine representatives from the Botswana Retired Nurses Association (Botswana), Kitovu Mobile AIDS Organization (Uganda), Mavambo Trust (Zimbabwe), the Negem Lela Ken New HIV Positive Women Support Organization (Ethiopia), the NAOP (Uganda), and the Phoebe Education Fund for HIV/AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (Uganda) met to highlight their work and the role that information access and literature can play in helping children orphaned by AIDS.

Jennifer Nantale, NAOP country director for Uganda, and Mark Tusiimire, librarian at the Nyaka School Library, were in attendance, and they filled LJ in on NAOP’s efforts to bring libraries to Uganda’s AIDS-affected communities.

WORKING LOCAL

In addition to founding the Blue Lupin libraries, NAOP provides housing support, microloans, nutritional support, access to education, and HIV and AIDS prevention, care, and treatment. Currently it serves more than 7,000 grandmothers and children.

SLF, a critical funding partner, works directly with a number of local grassroots organizations in Africa, providing care and support to orphaned children, the grandmothers who are often their main source of care and support, and others living with HIV and AIDS. The foundation has distributed and committed over $89 million to more than 1,400 initiatives, partnering with more than 300 community-based organizations (CBOs) in the 15 countries hit hardest by the global AIDS epidemic.

“Since our inception, we’ve seen how these CBOs are consistently some of the first and most effective responders to AIDS—so many of them led by HIV-positive individuals, women, and volunteers,” said Chloe Shantz-Hilkes, SLF media and communications coordinator. “We exist to deliver resources directly into their hands.”

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Nyaka students using the library’s ereaders
Photo credit: Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project

The Nyaka School Library, adjacent to a local school in the Kanungu District, was designed by a NAOP volunteer and built in 2010. Its collection includes print volumes and some 7,500 ebooks. Community members are able to visit and read at no cost, or for a small subscription fee can check out up to three books for a week at a time. The subscription fee also covers scanning, photocopying, and computer training, as well as the option to borrow e-readers, charged by solar cells—the most reliable source of power in the region. Local schools subscribe and send students to the computer lab, where they can study for exams and practice their technical skills. Librarians provide literacy instruction when needed.

“The Nyaka Blue Lupin Community Library also acts as a hub for youth in the communities who come and do different things, not only read but meet and discuss different issues,” Nantale told LJ. The library’s collection of games and puzzles—including chess, Ludo (the European version of Parcheesi), and Snakes and Ladders—attracts students after school and during school breaks, some of the library’s busiest times, according to staff. There is a coffee shop where patrons can sit and read books or the two newspapers the library subscribes to. (“The newspaper… that they are reading today is probably yesterday’s newspaper,” noted Nantale. “Believe it or not, it’s the most current news in the area.”) Local residents sell crafts there as well.

Librarians are encouraging the local young adults to form peer groups, such as boys’ and girls’ clubs, to meet there; last year a forum organized by NAOP brought youth from the entire region to the library.

An attached community hall seats about 150, playing host to services such as dental camps and health and mobile clinics, as well as local ceremonies, graduations, and weddings. It also serves as a distribution center for supplies when necessary.

BUILDING ON A HILLTOP

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The Kutamba Library under construction
Photo credit: Nyaka AIDS Orphan Project

The newer Kutamba School Library, built in 2013, serves the 33,000 residents of the village of Nyakishenyi in southwestern Uganda’s Rukungiri District—a remote and mountainous area that previously had no ready access to a robust selection of print materials or Internet services. “In a very real sense, the construction of a library…has brought the outside world to the surrounding community.”

Building the library, which is housed in the Kutamba Primary School, posed a number of challenges. “The school is at the top of a hill,” librarian Mark Tusiimire told LJ. “The trucks could not go up the hill and actually people had to carry bricks on their heads to get the materials up.” When the roads were passible, he added, workers had to carry glass windows on their laps to make sure the windows didn’t break.

Bringing Internet service to the area was even more challenging, with only one provider able to supply satellite Internet service. “All the other service providers, they did a little survey and there was just no way we could get the service,” said Tusiimire. “Where we are is considered a hard-to-reach area.”

He added, “Everything takes longer than it should have.” In the end, however, the library was finished to everyone’s satisfaction and has begun to build a collection, with more than 3,200 print books currently on the shelves. Although it does not have an ebook collection of its own, residents can use the library’s ereaders to access ebooks licensed by the Kutamba School.

GROWING COLLECTIONS

Each location has one librarian and a steady stream of volunteers, who help catalog and shelve books.

Books are mainly in English and Swahili, with a few other languages represented, and range from children’s picture books to primary and secondary school–level and academic works, with plenty of leisure and motivational books as well. Both libraries have made it a priority to collect work by Ugandan authors, and are currently working with local students to develop new resources that are directly informed by the communities they serve, such as the alphabet books created by Nyaka School students that represent each letter with familiar local imagery—T for tree, rather than train, for instance.

The libraries accept donated books—particularly through partnerships with other libraries that send them weeded material—but prefer to purchase their own, either by subscription to the Uganda Community Libraries Association or driven by patron requests. “We have different ways we try to get feedback from the community,” explained Nantale. “We have a suggestion box and when somebody comes to the library for the first time we let them know that they can give us feedback”—both about books they might want or other ways the library could better serve their needs.

When asked about the libraries’ materials budget, Tusiimire estimated it at around 20 million—in Ugandan shillings, he was quick to add, which comes out to less than $6,000 USD. The budget is supplemented through grants and fundraising. NAOP eventually hopes to open more libraries in Uganda, but is keeping its focus on the two Blue Lupin Libraries for now. “It’s always a funding issue,” Nantale told LJ. “Since we are also trying to get more resources into the existing libraries that we have, for right now we will just make sure that these libraries get more resources.”

“Going forward,” she added, “we would like to also be able to provide access to reading to those who cannot come to the library, and we’ve thought of starting a mobile library, either through putting books in a vehicle and then taking it out there…or having backpack libraries where a volunteer can put books in a backpack and just go read to a community.” On site, Nantale would like to see meeting room services expand into a youth and counseling center. “Maybe a child has been abused or they need reproductive health services; they can come [to] the library,” she said. “It’s a place that has so many services, so there would be no stigma for the youth and for anybody in the community that would be able to come.”

And she also hopes to leverage some of the rich local history. “Because we work with grandmothers, we would like to start on the idea of human libraries, where grandmothers can actually come and tell these wonderful stories,” she told LJ. “Maybe somebody can document those stories as well.”

Anyone interested in donating can do so through the NAOP website. The libraries also welcome volunteers. For further information on how to get involved or donate, see the Stephen Lewis Foundation website.

Lisa Peet About Lisa Peet

Lisa Peet is Associate Editor, News for Library Journal.

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