I first went to Rugezi Marsh on an outing to look at birds.
Per Wikipedia, “The Rugezi Marsh is one of headwaters of the Nile.” It is a final origin beyond the Victoria falls that Richard Burton identified as the head of the Nile in the 19th century.
The birds in Rwanda ARE spectacular, and like everything, endangered. The marsh boasts Cranes and Spoonbills among many others.
But the species that looked most endangered was homo sapiens. This was a poverty worse than what I was used to seeing in Rwanda.
I didn’t have to know anything about the history of Rwanda to see that the people that I had been working with were a more privileged group than these people.
After the birding tour we Peace Corps volunteers returned to the Ubuwuzu Hotel for lunch. This is one of the few places you can eat well in Rwanda.
Because I was the grown-up in the group and because I speak French the hotel owner, Blandine, asked me what I thought of the nature preserve area.
It turns out that Blandine is a nice Anglican Church lady who, aside from running the Ubuwuzu Hotel, is working very hard to help the poor of the Rugezi area. I told Blandine that my work involved distributing Solar Lanterns and Libraries. I had been working with Global Bright Light Foundation, a good deeds charity of various large energy companies around the world. However, Global Bright Light Foundation was no longer interested in supporting small groups with installment payment plans or protection against currency exchange fluctuations.
On the other hand, the USAID Mobile Library project was still functioning. I told Blandine about the Libraries.
We told Blandine that in order to have a library the community would have to have a space in some secure room for the books and a bookcase to hold them. With the scarcity of wood in Rwanda, bookcases are surprisingly expensive.
I heard nothing for a month, so I called Blandine. To my surprise she told me, “We are finishing the room for the books.
I went to see. Indeed, they had build a room onto the back end of the Anglican church. The room had been there for most of a month, but when the white lady showed up it became a spot of great interest.
Inside, the two men who had done the building were busy finishing the mud brick walls with a protective coating of cement. This is the standard building technique in Rwanda. They had a big pile of wet cement in the middle of the floor. When I showed up all work politely stopped. I was in terror that they were going to have a big pile of hardening wasted cement in the middle of the floor so I asked them to let me take pictures of them applying it to the walls.
On June 5, 2014 Origene, Hannah, (another Peace Corps volunteer) and I returned for the grand opening of the library. Blandine had all very efficiently at the ready.
We stopped at a carpenter and picked up shelves, nicely built and of appropriate style for the thin books that we were bringing. Rugezi Marsh is about 1/2 hour drive from the Ubuwuzu Hotel which is in the town of Byumba.
The students made a formal entry to inspect their new library. These were the first and only books in the town.
There were the requisite formal pictures taken.
The persons in this one were, from left, the area Bishop, one of the two men who built the library, a certain old Peace Corps volunteer, the Minister of the church, Hannah Lam who was a Peace Corps volunteer stationed nearby, someone unknown, and the Headwaiter of the Ubuwuzu Hotel. I have not identified them in this picture, but there was also a representative of a ministry in Kigali coming to support the opening.
You will notice that Blandine was not there for the grand opening. We arrived to this perfectly organized opening. But where was the organizer? She was in prison! Blandine had been arrested under very dubious circumstances by the military head of the area who just happened to be the brother of the owner of another restaurant in the area, Blandine’s competition. I don’t know whether commercial competition is the sole motive, or whether the problem was also that she supports people of the wrong group. What ever the story behind Blandine’s imprisonment, even from prison she managed to round up forces and stage a perfect library opening.
Eventually, Blandine got out of prison, but even six months later she has not been able to re-open her hotel. I do hope that the closure is not permanent.
Origene spoke. The Minister spoke. The representative from Kigali spoke. Even I gave a 9 sentence speech, partly in Kinyarwanda, (the native language).
The population gathered. They segregated themselves into groups; adults,
I returned to the U.S. in June 2014. Several months later I got an email from Blandine. She had gotten out of prison and had taken some English visitors to see the library. The community had selected (hired?) a couple of students to be librarians. The library was being well cared for and used.
The books in the collection are mostly English language children’s books. This is appropriate. There are only 10 million Kinyarwanda speakers. Education is now in English. There aren’t many books written in Kinyarwanda. Anyone who is literate speaks French or English, (depending on their age).
I have been sorry that all of the books are readers. I would have preferred to see some how-to books in the collection. Specifically I recommend:
- Furniture making
- Cement techniques (expansion joints are seriously needed)
- Vegetable growing
- Auto repair
- Installation and repair of solar power (there is no electric grid in this village)
- For inspiration: The Boy Who Harnassed the Wind.
- Some manner of science instruction like that used by the boy who built his own windmill.
- A small collection of Dr. Seuss – just because they’re the best for teaching literacy.
The USAID plan has been to install 85 of these libraries in the next few years. Some have gone to communities that are only interested in ‘receiving’ not in doing the work to make a library function. I have had the good fortune of getting six libraries started, all of which seem to be properly functional. I would love to be able to improve what has been started.