Some people are fortunate enough to live in a country where having books at home is commonplace, where literary awards or awareness days are part of the annual calendar and there’s a thriving book industry. So sometimes it is easy to forget quite how integral books are to our lives.
Yet in Malawi and many other parts of the world, books can be incredibly hard to access as they are too expensive for the average person to purchase. In these circumstances, a library is often the best or only place for people from all walks of life to access books.
“There is a hunger for reading materials in Malawi.” says Alfred Msadala, President of the Book Publishers’ Association of Malawi. “People want to read but they cannot afford to get books.”
Book Aid International has gathered these stories from readers in Malawi and they are a powerful reminder of the difference and joy that books and libraries can bring.
Relying on the library to pursue a brighter future
The library is one of the few places that offers free access to knowledge and education. Like many other places around the world, secondary school education in Malawi is not free which means that many children are not educated beyond primary school. At the age of 23, one of the local library readers, Simon has had the chance to attend secondary school thanks to support from family friends. Even though he is in school, learning can still be hard because of a lack of resources:
“Because of overcrowding in classes, it is difficult to have enough books.” says Simon. For pupils like him, his school library and local public library are vital to help him bridge the gap.
“I don’t have my own books to read, I am just depending on the library. When I go home, I go directly to the library to read those books. Sometimes you don’t find the books because some pupils have already borrowed them but that’s why we need more books!”
When as few as 28% of young people attend secondary school in Malawi, school is a chance for Simon to pursue a brighter future not only for himself but his wider family too – and the books at the library are an integral part of that.
“I want to make more of my future. The books will help, especially for mathematics. I like to solve mathematics – that is why I will be an accountant. If I get a good job after school, I will be able to help my mother.”
Using books to improve healthcare
Libraries provide access to health education and new ways of healthcare. Fikanayo is a registered midwife currently studying for a Masters at the Malawi College of Medicine and teaches other midwives. She’s using the library at the college to provide better healthcare and information to her community:
“Working as a midwife here in Malawi – especially in the remote area where I work – it is like you are the chief consultant! You are the obstetrician, the gynecologist, the anesthetist, the pediatrician at the same time as being the midwife. There are times that you are not sure what to do! A book does wonders because you can look and see how you can go about something.
Currently, I am doing research on diabetes, specifically self-care. When I was working on the wards, I saw a lot of patients with diabetes and many of them developed complications. There is not much information about diabetes so my intervention is trying to make sure that they get adequate support at home.
I thought if we give out enough information then it means that they might be able to manage their diabetes better. So, the idea is to take the information I learn here [in the library] and turn it into information for the patients in their homes. If the books were not here it would have been very hard.”
Books giving hope
The library becomes an incentive for people with disabilities. When Alfred, another library reader in Malawi, lost his leg and became wheelchair bound, it was books that helped him handle the changes and new challenges he faced:
“I lost my leg because I had severe gangrene. After the amputation ten years ago, it affected my other leg. Books have a special value for people who have a disability, they are a solace. I can say books are some sort of a tonic for them.”
When books arrive for the very first time
In 2017, the small remote village of Mphako in Malawi opened its first library and many people saw new books for the very first time. Our Head of Communications, Emma Taylor was there:
“While I have visited several locations where we provide books, this was my first time seeing a community experience books for the first time – and their response was truly inspiring.
The whole village had been gathered and before the library’s ribbon was cut, we were treated to traditional dances and singing with a real carnival atmosphere!
Children poured into the library as soon as it was opened. They explored books together, scrambling over one another for the chance read about the adventures of Peppa Pig, look at pictures of helicopters and read aloud about astronauts and tractors. The wonder on their faces as they saw children’s books for the first time was incredible.”
These stories from readers and of Mphako’s celebrations are a powerful reminder that books and libraries are precious. Their enthusiasm reminds us not to take them for granted – and that the power of books to open doors, enrich lives and help ambitious individuals and communities build a more prosperous future truly is something to celebrate.