Libraries in name only

by Karim F Hirji, with introduction and comments by Sasha Alyson

Under-Education in Africa
by Karim F Hirji, Daraja Press, 2019.
available in bookstores; from Daraja Press website, and from online sources, including Amazon, and Kindle.

Karim F Hirji — an activist, retired educator, and Fellow of the Tanzania Academy of Sciences — has observed “Under-Education in Africa” from colonial and post-colonial periods up to the present day.

He is an enthusiastic advocate for the importance of reading and a critic of aid – as am I. He also has decades of experience shaping, and observing, education in Africa, and particularly Tanzania. I do not, but I’ve do so elsewhere in the global South. The resemblances are overwhelming.

Here are a few excerpts from Prof. Hirji’s book. Following his words on each subject, I have added further comments from my own experience.

Libraries in name only

From the mid-1960s, a well-functioning, well-stocked national library system developed in Tanzania. With the main branch in Dar es Salaam, it had branches in almost all the major towns. The former was housed in an impressive, two-story structure. Students and general readers were attracted to the temples of knowledge in good numbers. They could savor a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books, locally published and imported, and an array of magazines and journals on the shelves.

Decent libraries operated at all the colleges, teacher training institutes and many secondary schools. Where teachers with an affinity to books and motivated librarians were present, the quantity and quality of the material on the shelves was decidedly impressive. On a visit to Mkwawa Secondary School in Iringa in 1973, I was floored by the range of books on science, general knowledge, literature and history in its library. The UDSM library was, if not the best, among the best university libraries in Africa. Dar es Salaam also had British Council Library, US Information Agency Library and three locally run private libraries. All except one of the local libraries were open to the public. The reading rooms of most of the libraries were usually crowded. Reading was taken for granted. The situation was far from ideal but was a far cry from what prevails now.

From my past visits and a recent informal survey done for this book by a research assistant, the following picture of the current situation emerges.

The once stellar public libraries remain crowded, but with pupils who use them as quiet study areas. No one browses the shelves. There is hardly anything new….

Many shelves are half empty. Yet, there is a large stock of uncatalogued books in the storage area.

Sasha comments: I have seen much the same in developing regions of Asia. One large university library, funded by South Korea, had only six students on a day that I visited. Two were reading a magazine, three were using the library as a quiet space writing, one was writing with a closed book nearby. (This was in 2010; today, I expect most would be looking at their phone.) Two librarians were busy sorting a donation of 6000 books from a Korean university. These were thick academic textbooks in English, I did not see a single one that I thought any student could read. Randomly I picked up one, it was 400 pages called something like “Price Analysis Management” or “Price Management Analysis.” I asked the librarian, can anyone read or understand this? No, she laughed, as if it was the silliest question she’d heard that day. Then she went back to sorting the books, so they could go onto the mostly-empty shelves, where the few books of interest to anybody would be lost amongst the deadwood.

The donated books were all different, and looked brand new. I believe they represent a little-known element of the education industry. Textbooks are highly profitable for the publisher; they also offers valued credentials for the author. Far too many mediocre textbooks are published, and — as students are well aware — prices have risen at three times the rate of inflation. Publishers send out massive quantities of “examination copies” to professors, hoping their book will be adopted. Professors hate to throw away new books, so they’re thrilled when an organization offers to collect them up and send them off to one of those “needy countries” where students should be grateful for whatever they get.

Ideally, the library would refuse to accept them. But the university gets financial support from Korea. The library gratefully accepts the books that nobody wants. The result is a library in name only. But nobody can recall ever seeing anything else. It must be the fault of the students, if they aren’t benefiting from so much goodwill.

The “American Corner”

In 2017, an American section was set up with US funds in one corner of the library. It provides information about studying in the US, has few inspirational books, conducts sessions to promote American culture and provides Internet access to the users.

Sasha comments: This is a little-noticed phenomenon: American embassies worldwide set up “American corners” in local libraries. The embassy donates some money and gets shelf space or even a whole room. Typically, I believe, they stock it with books, then send in a monthly selection of magazines, in English and chosen by the U.S. embassy. Content is heavily about the United States history and culture; I saw a book about American First Ladies in one such room.

In Venezuela, the website of announces:

“The American Corner in Lechería is a partnership between Urbaneja municipal government and the U.S. Embassy. It was Innaugurated on november 23, 2006, by the Ambassador of the United States in Venezuela, William R. Brownfield.”

That’s 2 errors, or 3, depending whether you consider two types of mistake in a single word to be 1 error, 2 errors, or Quite An Achievement. So perhaps the next book donation should be a dictionary.

Books donated – or dumped – from the West

Sending books and magazines to Africa from the West is an industry. Organizations like Book Aid, School Aid and STEM Book Project collect books from individuals, schools, colleges, publishers and libraries and package them for shipment. Funds for transport are raised from the public and companies. Most books are used books but some are new surplus stock. Not much thought or effort goes into determining exactly what is needed and where. Only a rough grouping of the books is done. At the destination, what is provided is accepted without any queries. The recipient accepts the consignment with gratitude. After all, books are books.

In the mid-2000s, a local NGO liaised with one such charitable group. Books for schools and colleges were requested. Sometime around 2008, at least four large containers stuffed with books of all kinds were delivered. External funds to hire staff and convert a residential structure into a storage and distribution place were secured. The books were not for sale but had to be distributed cost-free to educational institutions.

A friend and I visited the place on three occasions. The moment we entered, we had to wade through pile upon pile of books on the bare floor. One large room had books on the shelves and the floor. Placed in a semi-organized fashion, we went from room to room to find the books we were looking for.

The NGO had sent out information brochures to schools and colleges in the city. But the response had been disappointing. It needed a teacher or two to visit the place, identify the books appropriate for their school, and do the necessary paperwork for delivery. It was not clear who would cover the transport charge. Only a few teachers had come and a couple of hundred books were sent off. Though not allowed, some teachers and students had purchased books for themselves. My friend and I bought a few books at throwaway prices. I think some of these books found their way to the booksellers, supermarkets and street vendors in the city.

Otherwise, the enormous stock gathered dust. Two containers were untouched; their contents rotting away in the tropical humidity, heat and rain. But the staff did not seem concerned. There was no oversight from the suppliers. NGO funds paid their salaries whatever the outcome. After a few years, the place ceased to operate. No one knows what happened to the books.

Sasha comments: Here is karma colonialism in full display. The West is delighted to get rid of unwanted books, while also feeling good about helping those ever-needy Africans. To figure out if this is actually helping, would be too much trouble. I’ve previously discussed book-dumping in several stories; links are below.

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