Meet the Boys Who Started a Library in Uganda

03/14/17

Junior and Bless Moses, two COTN® students in Uganda, love to read. They read several books a week. But supporting their reading habit was difficult, because COTN’s secondary school didn’t have a library. 

Junior and Bless Moses love reading so much, they wanted to make sure all of their fellow students had easy access to books. 

Sometimes Junior and Bless Moses borrowed books from the personal collection of Lindsey Mueller, COTN’s Uganda education specialist, and Anna Dempsey, a global volunteer working with Lindsey. 

One evening, Junior and Bless Moses stopped by Anna and Lindsey’s home on the COTN campus, looking for books. But their quest for more reading material reached a crisis point. Anna didn’t have any more books to lend, and her attempts to create a school library had so far fallen short.

“I was really overwhelmed” Anna says. The school had enough books to start a library for the secondary students, but when COTN had loaned some of the books out to the students, most did not return them. For children in Uganda, Anna says, it’s tempting to keep the book, because books are relatively rare.

That night over tea, Junior and Bless Moses discussed the problem with Anna and Lindsey. The boys came up with ideas about where to keep the books, how to get students interested, and who should oversee the fledgling library. “Me and Lindsey just sat there nodding our heads,” says Anna. “By the end of the discussion everyone had a to-do list.” 

The next day, Bless Moses went to every classroom and talked to the students. He was able to reclaim several of the missing books. “They listen to a Ugandan,” Anna says with a laugh. “It was amazing to get even one book back, honestly.”

Gathering all of the books they could find—about 50 books—they placed them on two shelves in COTN’s primary school library. The boys asked the class president, and one of their teachers who share’s their enthusiasm for books, to run the library. “That was two weeks ago,” Anna says, “now it’s happening starting today, all because of them.” 

The library is open every week during lunch on Tuesday and Thursday. Students can check out a book for two weeks before they must return it. 

                         "They’re just excited that someone’s going to let them check out a book,” Anna says.

“There is a good turnout,” Junior observed after the first week. He checked out Prince Caspian, from the Chronicles of Narnia series. “I just love [the characters], they are fun to me,” he says.

The library is a far cry from the makeshift book-share system the students were using before. “It’s almost underground,” Anna explains. “If someone gets a book they'll let all their friends borrow it. They all read it and exchange it with each other, but that’s not helpful; they need one place.”

This campus-wide love for reading is actually a cultural shift. There's a widespread misconception that Africans don't like to read. But, as Junior says, “I didn’t find one of the Africans' problems as being Africans don’t like reading." The reality is that many Africans never had the chance to find out if they love to read.

Many African cultures are oral cultures. Storytelling is a common form of entertainment. But in so many places where people live below the poverty line, the culture of reading hasn’t developed. They have limited access to books, a lack of electricity for reading at night, and very little time available to read due to a subsistence lifestyle.

“And yet reading is the source of everything in education,” says Junior. Despite coming from impoverished backgrounds, the COTN students love reading. “It’s pretty cool that these boys and the girls desire to read,” Anna says. “This is not part of their culture, to read for pleasure. Maybe the Bible, but not to read Nancy Drew, Boxcar Children.”

Over the years, Wendy Brown, COTN’s international education director, has strategically provided COTN students with books, time for reading, school-wide reading challenges, and help for students who struggle to read. It’s paid off in a big way. 

In 2016, when our students took their national exams, COTN's school ranked 15th out of about 250 schools in our district. Lindsey credits this success to a sustained focus on reading. And, unlike some of the schools that out-performed COTN's, we don’t turn away students who are struggling academically. 

At the end of every year, COTN gives the kindergarten students an assessment to see if they can identify and write their alphabet. This year, 98 percent of these children could! Lindsey says she firmly believes this is due in part to the library and the time our Ugandan teachers spend every day reading to the kids. She says they are fostering a love for reading, and it’s working!

                      “They want to read, which is very rare in Uganda for people to read for pleasure,” Anna says.

There’s already a plan in place to expand the secondary school and the new building will include a library where students can sit and study. But Junior and Bless Moses have one more problem to solve. “There are not enough books,” Bless Moses says. With several hundred students in secondary school, 50 books isn’t enough. The plans for the new library will use funding for books to purchase a mixture of fiction and nonfiction books, including books by African authors, reference books, and academic books

“Without God we couldn’t have reached this far,” says Junior. “We still pray and hope that He will do more for us.” 

To hear the full story, listen to COTN’s podcast, “Meet the Boys Who Started a Library in Uganda.”