Saying Bye to Naluyele

 

Naluyele, left, with her good friend Chilala, right.

Naluyele, left, with her good friend Chilala, right.

One of the joys of visiting a Lubuto Library often is seeing familiar faces. The experience is enhanced by interacting with people you’ve seen around but never really got the chance to talk to. Under normal circumstances, this should be a happy experience but my meeting Naluyele for the first time actually had the opposite effect. It made me quite sad.

Naluyele is, I estimate, around twelve or thirteen years old. I had seen her before in a number of LubutoDrama performances. There was something about her eyes which was captivating. It is these same eyes that I can’t get out of my head now and perhaps for a very long time to come. They were wide and glassy when she approached me to say bye.

“I am leaving to go to the village, “she said, “and I just wanted to say bye before I go.”

This news took me aback. “Wait. Why are you leaving and where are you going? Most importantly will you be coming back?” I asked.

There was something about the way she spoke that day which prompted me to ask such interrogative questions.

“My grandmother has summoned me to the village in the Copperbelt and I don’t think I will be coming back.” Naluyele responded.

Pulling her aside from the other children, I asked if there was anything I could do or that the library could do or anybody at all to help her. Of course she said no. “I am leaving tomorrow.” She replied.

The girl didn’t seem to know why she was going back to the village or what she was going to do there. I sensed that she did not want to leave but had to nonetheless because the grandmother had summoned her. I imagine the grandmother must be the matriarch of her family.

Naluyele was enrolled at the Fountain of Hope Community School and her departure meant that she may no longer continue with her education. Nobody knows.

I had to share this story although it makes me sad not knowing exactly where Naluyele went or what she is doing in the village now. I am writing about Naluyele because she is a girl who loved to use the library to simply enjoy a story. She actively participated in the Lubuto Library Programs and made friends with the other children and staff as well.

Her last drama performance was in a play based on a book written by Angela Shelf Medearis titled The Singing Man.

We hope to see Naluyele again. This time bright-eyed and happy when she reunites with Lubuto Library one day.

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Reading Culture

I run into lots of people in Zambia who ask me what I’m doing here. It’s a fair question, and so I tell them: I’m a librarian-in-training, conducting collection evaluation research in children’s libraries. And more than once now the person I’m talking to has looked at me with bemusement and a little bit of pity and said, “A librarian? But here we don’t have a reading culture.”
 
This is a hard idea to wrestle with on many levels. At its most basic, I struggle with the idea of reading as a “culture.” Saying “we don’t have a reading culture” seems a little like saying “we don’t have an eating culture,” or “we don’t have a playing culture.” These are basic activities that make up the fabric of a life, not culturally-specific traditions. Of course, what and how people like to read (or what and how people like to eat, or play) varies by culture, but the activities themselves stem from basic human needs. People need stories. People need information. Reading is certainly not the only way to get those things, but it is a direct, effective, and fulfilling way.
 
I read an article recently about the idea of “reading culture,” where Namibian professor Kingo Mchombu suggests that rather than lacking a reading culture many countries in Africa lack in terms of high-quality, relevant reading materials. This makes sense to me. How much of my love of reading is the product of instant gratification, of being able to always access the books I want to read? Between my library, ebooks, and local bookstores, I can’t think of the last time it took me more than an hour to get the exact book I wanted, or to find something even better. Would I still love reading if most of the books I had access to were outdated or so far removed from my life experiences that I couldn’t relate to them? As it is, I am a selfish, picky reader who finishes probably one in five of the books that I start.
 
At the end of the day, though, Nabukuyu is the biggest indictment I have of the notion of “reading culture.” If you are trying to think of a place where access to books is limited, there is no better example. Nabukuyu is the very definition of rural—a village of widely-scattered homesteads 45 minutes from a small town via a dirt road. Most of the people who live there are pastoralists, and cattle are everywhere. Electricity, on the other hand, is only available three days a week. The school does not have a library, and I doubt there is a bookstore within a hundred miles. So you can see that to people who believe in the presence or absence of “reading cultures,” Nabukuyu wouldn’t offer many reasons to hope.
 
But I was privileged enough to be present this week when we opened the doors of the Mumuni library in Nabukuyu to children for the first time, and I can tell you beyond a shadow of a doubt that a vast majority children in Nabukuyu love to read. I can tell you this because of the incredible numbers of children who lined up outside, because of the expressions on their faces when they walked through the door—with eyes wide, mouths agape, like they had stumbled into Narnia— and because of how eagerly and excitedly they opened books and disappeared into them. I can tell you that children in Nabukuyu love to read because when I went to reshelve the mountains of books that had appeared in the baskets I didn’t have space to walk, the room was so full of children. I can tell you that children in Nabukuyu love to read because they brought their families: girls as young as six or seven came in with baby siblings on their backs and patiently arranged their wraps on
the floor of the talking circle as a playpen of sorts. I can tell you that the babies love to read board books or chew on them, at the very least.
 
I can tell you that children in Nabukuyu love to read because every storytime we did saw at least fifty children in attendance, requiring a great deal of patience as we spun in circles to make sure every single child got to see the pictures. I can tell you that children in Nabukyu love to read because the other day I walked past a boy on the road who greeted me by saying “chicka chicka boom boom” instead of hello, courtesy of the book I’d read for storytime the day before (“Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” by Bill Martin Jr.).
 
Last week you could have said that these children didn’t read, but you can’t say that anymore. And it’s for this reason—because I have personally witnessed how instantly and completely the provision of high-quality children’s books can create voracious readers—that I say with confidence that there is no such thing as the confusing, nebulous notion of a “reading culture.” The reality is achingly simple: If you give most children good, relevant books, they will like to read. They will get to the library early and peek in through the shutters while they wait for it to open. They will bring their friends. They will gasp audibly when they open a new book. They will come back again and again.
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Zefe and Nolasco: The Boys Who Stole School

DSCN0373I couldn’t wait to meet Zefe and Nolasco when I first heard their story from Brenda at Fountain of Hope regarding how they “stole” school. Yesterday, I finally got a chance to sit down and have an interesting chat with them about why they come to a Lubuto Library every single day that it’s open. However, before I proceed with their account, I would like to share that I had actually taken notice of Zefe’s gusto during a mentoring session conducted by Kenny and Brenda a few weeks ago. At the time I thought to myself, “Wow, what a clever boy!” because Zefe was actively answering most of the questions posed to the group of approximately 48 children in the mentoring session and even providing examples so that his peers could understand his point. Little did I know that there was more than meets the eye with Zefe.

I sat down in the Fountain of Hope reading room together with Zefe and Nolasco for a very informal chat. Reason being that I was very curious to hear from them about how exactly they stole school and came to know about Lubuto! Apparently, stealing school is what led them to the Lubuto Library.

This is how they did it. Both boys come from Misisi compound in Lusaka and claim that they have never attended school not even Grade One. Zefe and Nolasco told me that before discovering Lubuto, they spent their days playing soccer and just hanging out with their friends at home. However, one of their friends approached them and told them that there was an opportunity to attend school at the Fountain of Hope community school where he was enrolled and that they could also participate in some interesting activities at the library on the same premises. That is how Zefe and Nolasco went to attend a Grade Four class without the classroom teacher’s knowledge. Concurrently, the boys started visiting the library and became active participants of the LubutoLiteracy, LubutoMentoring, and LubutoDrama programs. No sooner had they joined these programs than they were transferred to Grade Five because they were found to be smarter than the other Fourth graders. Zefe and Nolasco give credit to LubutoStorytime for teaching them how to read because they say it sparked their curiosity about how to spell words and pronounce them.

According to Zefe and Nolasco, they both enjoy spending time at the library because they learn a lot from Lubuto in a fun environment. Zefe dreams of being a pilot, while Nolasco aspires to be the Vice-President of the country one day. “The boys who stole school” has become an endearing reference to Zefe and Nolasco because it acknowledges their courageous pursuit of education and enlightenment!

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How to Learn to Read

11631224745_7b4496b0d8The other day there was a girl sitting in the insaka.

The insaka one of the library buildings, a small, round, open space where children often gather. It’s a “lobby” of sorts, and there are usually people sitting in the insaka, or playing soccer in the insaka. This was nothing out of the ordinary. And what happened next wasn’t anything unusual either: Brenda, a staff member at the Fountain of Hope library, went out and sat next to the girl. Why didn’t she come inside the reading room? Brenda asked.

The girl’s answer was simple: she didn’t know how to read. She felt embarrassed going into the reading room and flipping through the pages of a book she couldn’t understand. She was too old for picture books.

What did the library have to offer her?

Brenda told her about LubutoLiteracy, a series of computer-based literacy lessons in each of Zambia’s seven major local languages that she could access for free in the libraries. The girl wasn’t interested– those were also for young children, she felt. She was too old to sit in a room full of children and use the little OLPC laptops to learn to read.

Okay, Brenda said, then I’ll help you learn to read.

My first thought after hearing about this encounter was, “I wonder how long that girl would have had to sit in the lobby of a public library in the United States before someone would have come out and offered to teach her to read.” It’s not a perfect comparison, I know– but the situation struck me in the moment because it seemed so out of the ordinary. I was lucky enough to intern at one of the best public libraries in the area where I live this spring, working with children’s librarians who were skilled, passionate, and dedicated. But we did not wander the building looking for children who might be reluctant to come and read. We did not offer to impart spur-of-the-moment, one-on-one literacy lessons to struggling readers.

There are a lot of reasons for this, which is why I say it’s not fair to make an instant comparison. One big reason is because in American public libraries children come accompanied by parents. Children aren’t even allowed in my hometown’s public library unless they’re accompanied by an adult, and it’s the parents who manage the library experience. The parents ask the reference questions. The parents help the children find books. If a child can’t read, or is reading below grade level, the parent is the one asking for a book at lexile whatever, preferably with characters from Ninjago.

In Zambia, again for lots of reasons, children usually come to Lubuto Libraries without adults. Some of them come from nearby schools and some of them live in the neighborhood. Many of them have parents who work hard all day just to make ends meet, and some of them don’t have parents at all. Regardless of the reason, when children come to the library without parents it thrusts librarians into a different type of role. And it could be just that– it could be a role that you as a librarian felt was thrust upon you. Or it could be an opportunity to reach out as Brenda did– to go beyond the bounds of the reading room, to find a reluctant child and to connect with her, to help her in a real, personal way. And while Brenda’s story seemed remarkable to me, it really isn’t anything unusual at Lubuto. I’ve since heard lots of similar stories about other staff members and other children, and this is just the one that happened to stick with me.

In library school we talk a lot about information needs. It’s kind of an dry, academic idea– just ask someone, “what are your information needs?” and see how useful of an answer you get. In an interview with a staff member recently we were discussing the information needs of children and the person I was interviewing asked me a good question. What exactly counts as an information need? Can the desire to hear a story that captures your imagination be considered an “information need” in the same way that learning where to access school scholarships is an information need? What about the need for a caring, patient adult to spend time with you? It may not be an information need as such, yet it is a need, something that brings children running eagerly into the library and keeps them there. But it’s for the children who are just taking the first faltering steps– who are sitting in the insaka and afraid to approach the reading room, or standing outside the gates– that those caring, patient adults are the most essential. For those children the library staff members are a bridge that connects them not just to “information” or “services,” but to the Lubuto Library community and all of its resources– print and digital and human alike.

That girl probably hasn’t learned to read yet. It’s a process, after all. But the most difficult part of that process, I suspect, isn’t learning to decode words or sound them out. I suspect the most difficult part of that process is getting past the voices of self-doubt in your head that tell you you can’t learn, you’re too old, people will laugh at you, there’s no one to help. And I imagine that it would take hearing another voice, a patient, compassionate voice saying something like, “I’ll teach you to read,” to give you the courage to start.

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Picture Books

I am one of those weird people who loves public speaking. I find it invigorating. Even more than public speaking, though, I love reading. So it comes as a surprise to no one when I say that I love storytimes– they are public reading, shared experiences in which I can make a story I love come alive for a group of children.

Storytimes are great. Reading out loud to children is fun, and it’s satisfying, and it’s important. Children develop vocabulary, they learn how stories are structured, and they develop positive associations with reading. I know all of this. Yet in the last week I’ve found myself equally captivated by a very different experience– the experience of being “read aloud to,” often by children who can’t actually read.

What do I mean by that? For example: I’ll be sitting in the library, completely focused on a spreadsheet where I’m tracking quantitative data, when a little girl will come up to me, poke my arm, and dump a picture book in my lap. The first time this happened, the girl in question was about three. She opened the Nyanja-language picture book authoritatively and poked at an illustration about as hard as she had just poked my arm. She said something about the illustration. In Nyanja.

“Hmm,” I said, raising my eyebrows. “Yes.” It would be really cool if I could speak Nyanja, I thought to myself.

But as we continued looking at the book, I felt less and less of a need to speak Nyanja. We touched our favorite parts of the pictures. We counted some of the animals. We discovered we did share a few common vocabulary words (“apples,” “biscuits,” “baby”) and could have a surprisingly engaging conversation using those words and a lot of pointing and miming. When we got to an illustration of a baby, she picked up the book and began kissing the page enthusiastically. “I love babies, too,” I said, and pretended to kiss the baby as well. She giggled. Her emotional connection to that book and its images was real, and the connection we developed while reading that book was real– even though we couldn’t actually read the book together.

I had another experience like this with an older child who spoke English (but didn’t read it) the other day as well. He came up to me while I was working at the desk and handed me a book. “I’ll tell you this story,” he said.

“Okay,” I agreed. He opened to the first page. A baby was lying on a blanket in a garden.

“A frog eats the baby,” he informed me.

“How can a frog eat a baby?” I asked incredulously, thinking that he was making up something silly. He turned the page. The next picture was of a frog swallowing the baby. Silly me, as it turns out.

I like the role reversal of being read to from pictures. I like that it gives children an opportunity to be the experts, which is an opportunity a lot of children don’t have in schools or in their day-to-day lives. More than offering a hollow chance to play-act at being adult, however, I think that there is something essential pre-literate children can share with adults, and each other, using picture books–the skill of reading images.

Last year I told myself I finally needed to get on the graphic novel bandwagon, and I buried myself in my room with some award-winning graphic novels for young adults. I emerged a day later with a headache and a sense of my own incompetence. Reading graphic novels is hard. I hadn’t realized how limited my ability to read sequential still images was. I couldn’t keep track of the characters. I missed important details. I would find myself re-reading the same pages over and over again, trying to get the same flow that I found in reading words. I got better at it with time, but I still wouldn’t say that I like it.

And that’s part of why it amazes me to look at picture books with children who can’t read words, but who notice every tiny detail in a picture and who use those images as a springboard for their own developing skills as storytellers. I see young children in the libraries every day, children who I know can’t read narrating stories they’ve interpreted from picture books as confidently as if they were fluent readers. Recently I noticed a boy in the library who was sitting by himself and looking at the illustrations in a book in painstaking detail. He hunched over the book and touched the pages, utterly rapt but clearly not reading. I couldn’t resist– I grabbed another library staff member and sat down next to him. “Let’s talk about this book,” I said. “What are you doing? What’s going on that’s got you so interested?”

“I’m thinking about what’s happening,” he said. He pointed to a girl in the sky. “She’s flying,” he said. “She’s flying to the supermarket.” He touched the building below her. “This is the supermarket.”

“Oh,” I said, intrigued. To me there was no indication that the girl was flying, and no indication that the building was a supermarket. I asked the first thing that came into my head. “How do you know that she’s flying, and not falling?”

He looked at me incredulously. “Look at her ribbon,” he said, pointing to her dress. The ribbon was streaming out behind her in the wind, a dead giveaway that she was moving horizontally. If I paid even a fraction of the attention to pictures that I pay to words, I would have noticed that. It’s a good thing I had someone to remind me.

Learning to read words is essential. But I think sometimes we get so hung up on words that we forget about all of the other skills children gain from having access to picture books. They are particularly valuable here, where Zambian-language picture books are scarce and English-language literacy isn’t fully developed until most schoolchildren are around nine or ten. Picture books offer those children who aren’t yet bilingually literate an opportunity to meaningfully interact with a story on their own terms. However, picture books are not just a step on the way to becoming a “real” reader– they are complex and beautiful forms of literature that open doors to deep creativity, empowering children of all reading levels (or none) to interpret, create, and share the unique stories they see when they look at pictures.

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Reading Together

5229448631_db8f276005_bWhen I worked in Lubuto’s D.C. office, I spent a fair amount of time captioning photos that other people had taken in the libraries. Looking through those pictures was always fun– seeing the big smiles, the crowds of children watching or participating in drama performances, and the teen artists bent over their masterpieces. But the most common caption that I used was some permutation of the phrase “reading together.” “A group of young girls read together,” “Volunteers and children read together,” “Reading together during community outreach,” etc. You get the idea.

The frequency of those images caught my attention, because in my own life, going to the library had never been a very social experience. Even as a child, I would dart away from my family the second we got through the doors, find the most private corner I could, and disappear into a book. My childhood reading life was mostly solitary, and my books were like my own private universes. I don’t remember ever going to the library with a friend.

Reading in Lubuto Libraries, on the other hand, is an intensely social experience. It’s rare that I’ve seen a solitary child come into the library. Usually they come in five or six at a time, lining up behind each other to write their names (or draw a picture, if they can’t write yet) on the sign-in sheet, and then cluster together on a bench or in the talking circle. The other day I watched a group of three young boys come into the library– the youngest was probably five, and the oldest might have been nine. They ran to the shelves and grabbed books with the energy and abandon that little boys have, and when they sat down in the talking circle I surreptitiously came over and sat near them. The youngest didn’t seem to be able to read much yet, but his enthusiasm was unmatched by any of the older, more literate children in the library– he turned the pages quickly, stopping to point or gasp or exclaim to his friends, and would occasionally be so overcome that he would literally shove the book on top of whatever his friends were reading, drawing their attention to the images on the page. (It was a book about early humans, so the images were pretty exciting– think neanderthals being attacked by saber-toothed tigers.) Then the other two boys would patiently set their own books aside and admire the pictures with him, until eventually one of the others would appropriate the book and the younger boy would just as eagerly grab whatever his friend had been reading instead. There was no fighting, just a mutual acceptance that a friend’s book must be as exciting as one’s own.

In addition to observing the ways in which the children pick books and utilize the collection, my research has involved monitoring the baskets in the libraries that are supposed to be for children to put used books in so librarians can re-shelve them. My observation has been that these baskets are used less to collect books that kids are finished with than as a “mixing bowl” to exchange reads. I see children pull books out of the baskets just as often as I see them take from the shelves, it seems, and when I asked some kids about it today they expressed a sentiment I think is universal, saying, “we want to read the books our friends just finished!” I think of the popularity of websites like Goodreads in the United States, and the cumbersome process of “finding” my friends in order to see their “shelves” and read their recommendations so I can share their reading experiences online. I wish my shared reading experiences could happen as spontaneously or as constantly as they do for children in Lubuto Libraries– informally, at rapid-fire speed, either verbally or with as little ceremony as shoving a book into a friend’s lap– because if a friend shoved a book in my lap, I’d definitely read it.

These shared reading experiences are building friendships even as they help children grow into enthusiastic, wide-ranging readers with an appreciation for the opinions and interests of others. They are also building leaders. Recently I walked in on the end of a storytime that had been led by a library staff member. The end of a storytime is always a little bittersweet– the kids often linger there, staring hopefully at the librarian, or picking up new books to push into their hands, “just one more.” This time, though, after the librarian walked away, the oldest girl in the group just picked up a pile of books and sat down among the younger children and began her own storytime. They crawled on top of her and read “Hop on Pop” together in chorus, and the other children in the library laughed and occasionally chimed in on a line or two. And I’m sure I should be able to think of a more creative caption by now, but if I’d had a photo of that moment I would have returned to the simple but amazing sentiment of “an impromptu storytime sees children of all ages reading together.”

Former Lubuto Program Associate Elizabeth Giles is currently in Zambia for the summer, conducting research on the Lubuto Library collections.

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12 More Days!

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Just a few weeks left to contribute to Thomas’s professional education! As Lubuto is committed to contributing any remaining amount needed for the coming academic year, every donation, large or small, means more of Lubuto’s funds can go towards our direct library services.

Donate here today: https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/a-leader-for-african-libraries

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