Save Our Library!
Volume 1, Issue 4-5 / March-April 2009
Refugees call for efforts to save the only library in Kakuma Camp as the building threatens to collapse and librarians lose their job due to budget cuts.
It is difficult to imagine a library lacking a building, shelves, lighting, and a librarian, but this is precisely what Kakuma residents are worried may soon be the state of the area’s only library.
Extensive termite damage and budget cuts are threatening the library’s future. Mr. Admasu, the librarian, reports that the wooden frames of doors, windows, and the book shelves have been eaten by termites. The cracks in the walls and floors of the building have not been repaired. The library operates without lighting because the exhausted solar batteries have not been replaced due to lack of funds.
And now, the library is expected to operate without a librarian. For ten years, the library was staffed by two librarians and a watchman who received incentive payments from LWF (Lutheran World Federation). But in January 2009, LWF cut payments to librarians and only continue to pay one security guard.
Despite the loss of his job, Mr. Admasu continues to volunteer his time to keep the library running.
“A testament to creativity and ingenuity”
According to Mr. Admasu, the library was established in 1991 in Walden Refugee Camp, 125 km from the Ethiopian border with Kenya at Moyale. The first books were contributed by refugees themselves.
In 1993, the refugees at Walden Camp were relocated to Kakuma, and the library migrated with them. The new Kakuma Library was opened under the shade of a tree until LWF supported its construction with materials and labor in 1994. Don Bosco, another NGO in Kakuma, supported the library with shelves, benches, and chairs. Books were contributed by individuals and Book Aid International, an organization based in the U.K.
But the building established by LWF was a mud-brick structure and could not cope with service demands. The librarian submitted a proposal for a renovated building to the Japanese government, who approved the project.
In the year 2000, the Japanese Government visited Kakuma Camp with the Wakaohiat Project. They donated 1.5 million Ksh for the construction of a more suitable library building. The new building allowed the library to offer evening reading hours through a solar-powered lighting system. (The batteries eventually died and the unit can no longer be used.)
One of these Japanese representatives, Kariaki, played a great role during the construction of the library. He later passed away tragically in a car accident on the road between Lodwar and Kakuma. The community continues to remember his excellent service for refugees.
Mr. Admasu estimates that the library currently boasts a collection of about 30,000 books, including selections in English, Amharic, Kiswahili, and Somali. Books are ordered under the Dewey Decimal classification. Books range from literary classics, encyclopedias, almanacs, dictionaries, maps, news media, and books of various disciplines, including curriculum books and children’s stories. The library also maintains an archive of all past editions of the Kakuma News Bulletin (KANEBU), the previous refugee print newsletter which disappeared around 2005.
According to Mr. Admasu, the library is visited by about 200 readers daily, including refugees, humanitarian workers, and local community members. Members are allowed to borrow books and other reference materials by request.
The library’s long-term success has impressed many visitors to the camp. Zachary Lomo, a PhD Candidate at Cambridge University, visited the library in December 2008. He declared, “This library is a testament to refugees’ creativity and ingenuity; they are not just people to give 500 grams of cereals.”
Essential community resource
The library, located among a shady grove of trees in the Ethiopian Community, is seen as an oasis in the camp. “This library is a melting pot of knowledge for all communities in the camp with no exclusion,” says Mohamed, a Somali community leader and avid reader.
Mohamed says he was delighted to discover the library after arriving in Kakuma in 1997 from a refugee camp in Mombasa. “I did not have much to read here, but a friend of mine informed me that there was a big library in the Ethiopian community. The next day I went to the library. It was a magnificent building shaded with natural trees and manmade tree fencing that helped the library by breaking wind, dust, and creating mild temperatures.”
Jacky, a regular reader who has completed secondary school and has worked with Film Aid International, says the library is an essential community resource. “All categories of people come here to this library. There is empowerment in reading—it may benefit students who study in Kenyan colleges and the WISK [scholarship] program, or other students. Even for employment they come here and get information from magazines, newspapers, periodicals, etc.”
Jacky notes that these benefits extend to youth and families. “It helps parents because the children come enjoy reading in the library instead of going to bad places, like money games and drug abuse,” she says.
But regular readers note that the presence of girl readers is rare. “I observe that you can rarely see girls reading in the library, so the mobilization of girls is necessary,” says Mohamed.
Readers at the library are pleased with the librarians’ services. “The staff of the library know their profession properly and are committed to the duty,” says Mohamed.
Appeals for UNHCR and NGO support
Mr. Admasu says the library would like to offer internet access to readers, but lack of funding has so far stymied the idea. He says the librarians are appealing to UNHCR and NGO agencies for funding support in this initiative.
Community members who benefit from the library’s services believe humanitarian agencies should support the refugee camp’s only library. “I think LWF and other NGOs should fund the library because the library empowers the students of primary and secondary school as well as college students,” says Jacky.
“If we leave the library like this,” she continues, “It will collapse. Before this happens, all the concerned agencies should be involved in repair work as soon as possible.”
“In my view, LWF, Windle Trust Kenya, Jesuit Refugee Services, and UNHCR will not let the library collapse. They should be guardians of this library,” states Mohamed.
KANERE attempted to reach the UNHCR Community Services Officer, Menbere Dawit, for comment. At the UNHCR main gate, a security guard called Ms. Dawit by phone and informed her that a KANERE journalist wished to speak to her. She responded that she was too busy to see the reporter.