The container that became a library

Kathy Woolley
Opinion - International Friday, 20 March 2020

Kathy Woolley reports on a remarkable new project in Rwanda


At Book Aid International we are always looking for innovative ways to help people all over the world gain access to books and improve their life chances through reading. In 2019 we had the opportunity to do something quite different to support the children of Rwanda.

We have been working in Rwanda since 2016. Our partner there, Elizabeth Mujawamariya Johnson of Grace Rwanda/INEZA Foundation, had a big dream: of creating a thriving library for children in her district of Gasave, Kigali. She also had a disused 40-foot shipping container from Canada sitting empty in her compound. Talking with Elizabeth over a cup of strong Rwandan coffee, an idea was born. We would transform the container... into a library.

A space was found in a public park in Gasave, and over a period of five months, with the help of over 20 volunteers, the container was completely repurposed into a bright and beautiful library space. The library now boasts fully fitted bookshelves, vibrant painted murals, and a fully-lit veranda with tables and benches that can seat over 50 people. Thanks to donations from publishers in the UK and support from Book Aid International, the container is now stocked with a huge selection of books - from board books for babies and colourful picturebooks right through to young adult fiction.

Rwanda has made huge strides in recovering from the 1994 genocide, but despite strong economic growth it remains one of the poorest countries in the world. While the government has prioritised providing basic education for all children and enrolment in primary schools is high, books in English, the medium of instruction, are scarce. Children are desperate to read, as Elizabeth remarked: "When we come here on the weekend, it's packed. There are so many kids! It showed me that their hearts are just boiling for reading."

The Voyager Container Library meets this need for access to books within communities, providing an innovative solution to the lack of dedicated reading places for the children in Kigali, raising the profile of reading, and demonstrating to local authorities how they can support reading promotion. The container library provides opportunities for children to read and borrow high-quality, new and colourful children's books, which will help them to develop confidence in reading and improve in their learning and education.

Twelve-year-old Carine remarked, "At school we had books but limited days when we were supposed to read. Now we have this library, I come every day after school. Now I can read so often I will know how to read better and I will now start approaching English books and be able to read English better."

The grand opening of the container library took place as part of International Literacy Day celebrations in September 2019, with lots of singing, dancing, reading and writing competitions.

Following the success of this pilot, we are planning to establish more container libraries in places across the continent where communities are lacking library resources and desperately need access to books. One such example is the destination for our next container library: Kakuma Refugee camp in Kenya. Serving over 180,000 people displaced by conflict or discrimination, the camp has little access to the books that are vital to develop and support reading skills.

However, we can't do this without the generous support of funders, such as players of People's Postcode Lottery, who have supported the Rwanda Voyager, and the publishing industry, which donates the wonderful books we send. Together we can establish many more container libraries across Africa in the years to come.

In 2019 Book Aid International sent 1.2 million books to thousands of libraries, schools, universities, prisons and refugee camps in 26 countries around the world, providing access to books in all categories for millions of people who would otherwise be denied the opportunity to read. These books were all generously donated by the UK publishing industry.

If your company has surplus books it could donate, please contact Harry Boughton, head of operations: harry.boughton@bookaid.org (tel 020 7733 3577).

Kathy Woolley is head of communications at Book aid International.

This article was commissioned for the Publishers Weekly/BookBrunch London Book Fair Show Daily.

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