Kristen Scott Ndiaye is a Bermudian currently living in Toronto, Canada. She believes that the smallest gestures, over and over, can have a big impact.
For years, the question has continuously run through my mind of how I could broaden children’s horizons to the actual possibilities of religion, language, culture, travel and even food outside of their own world.
Build a library, perhaps?
Six months ago, we started the initiative to do just that—Reading Culture would build libraries one bookshelf at a time for children around the world. With the help of our community, we were able to begin the process of building our first in a village just outside Dakar, Senegal, to contribute to its local world of work and book industry, and to spark new enthusiasm for reading and learning in both teachers and students.
After slowly building our case as advocates for the importance of building an engaging culture of reading for children, through much consulting about everything there is to know about children’s libraries and then facilitating workshops on interactive, multicultural reading, we were on our way to building a bookshelf for our first children in need.
Early morning on a hot day in February with about 70 donated books in tow, I got into a jittler taxi, along with my husband and daughter, and took a two-hour ride to a small primary school in the French city of Thiès, Senegal, on the coast of West Africa. École Mame Mariema Diouf has three classrooms, 40 energetic students and about 10 books to share amongst them.
During the month before, we had taken on the challenge of finding what they needed: books—many books—that were in French, for children aged four to eight, and multicultural. In searching, our network expanded to new heights, visiting with Alliance Française Toronto, Children’s French Book Corner, Librairie Mosaïque, and on the ground in Dakar: Institut Français at the Cultural Centre of Dakar, which directed us to local publishers, Librarie Clairafrique, where we found supplies, and Aux Quatre Vents Librarie, which had walls lined with books. For those who have a difficult time imagining a book haven in Africa, rest assured.
We were on our way to change the lives of at least 40 children, with incredibly illustrated book titles like Voyage autour du monde (Travel Around the World), Le crayon magique de Malala (Malala’s Magic Pencil) and Max et Lili se posent les questions sur Dieux (Max and Lili Ask Questions about God). My mind also went to the junior dictionaries and encyclopedias, atlases, flash cards and reading games, plus local stories and African tales that rattled around in the trunk. All this, from a single thought six months ago.
Circling through the village five times finally brought us to the front steps of a small building and a hand-painted sign that let us know that we had arrived. Silence met us at the gate and I held my breath—the past six months flashed through my head. The doors opened to a chorus of children in blue uniforms singing the most incredible and melodic “Thank you.” I exhaled and was shoved from the past straight into the present. Nothing will ever parallel the reaction of the headmistress, the children and my heart.
For a week, they had sat facing an empty bookshelf, built and delivered by a local carpenter. Having commissioned it from afar, we were uneasy but determined to support a local artisan. To our relief and awe, the shelf was even bigger and more beautiful than we expected. The craftsmanship was better than what one would find in a high-end furniture store.
After a beautiful welcome, knowing how little access these children had to books, we took them back to basics and taught them about the book. What is a book? How do we hold it? Where do we store it? But also, a message that runs through all of our workshops: what is a story? The children watched intently as we taught them how to care for the books by covering them in plastic, and then they did it themselves.
They could hardly wait to touch their new passports to the world. I stepped back and watched as they opened the pages, pointed to the pictures of other children from India and China and Kenya, they giggled to those next to them, asked questions and answered them, argued over the History of Islam and shared their discovery of a book on Korea.
A project like this is a urgent reminder of just how expensive children’s books really are—the books that matter: the ones with content that makes a child think critically about the world, with sound story lines that develop literacy skills, and illustrations that teach what “good art” means. I feel confident in saying that this type of book is almost inaccessible to many people, even in North America, and we asked ourselves how the children could possibly get these otherwise. The answer? They couldn’t, not without the help of our donors.
We had made the decision to start this project just a month before. Through GoFundMe, we wrote down and let the world know our hopes and dreams, our commitment to future donors, to the schools and students, to the world of work in the region and literacy worldwide.
In the span of that month, supporters from our personal network, children’s authors, publishers, reading and diverse-book advocates from around the world took the time to connect, to send snail mail and donate money to the construction.
Some people say that there is no selfless act. Well, let this selfish feeling be the motivating factor in future projects for Reading Culture. Our current search is for an appropriate institution in Bermuda that could use a multicultural bookshelf.
We are also thrilled to be starting a partnership with the Bermuda Overseas Mission’s Habitat for Humanity. We’ve begun planning for our second bookshelf to accompany the BOM ambassadors on their next trip, which will be in Bangalore, India, in July of this year, and of course, we are looking for more donors who would like to support giving communities greater access to knowledge, power and creativity.*
For now, our focus is on staying in contact with the school in Thiès. We plan to continue to build up their reading culture—giving them a place learn, grow and develop their curiosity and empathy for the world, open their minds and broaden their horizons.
*Read more and support the Bermuda Overseas Mission and Reading Culture’s next bookshelf in India at the GoFundMe page: [URL to come].