By Aswathy Senan:
This girl from Kerala is dreaming with the people of Kichangani, a small village 35 kms away from the city of Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. They dream of the day they will have clean water to drink and books to read. Their dream is now on its way to reality. Here’s a conversation with Somy Solomon and her project called Kichankani Library, a social media driven initiative. (This is mostly a collection of FB posts and responses to chat messages that she has received over the months)
Q. How did you come up with the idea of starting a library? Will it just be a library or do you intend to do other things as well?
A. The attempt is not to build a library similar to the ones we have in India. Instead, the building that is being made will function as a Learning Centre where the participants will be taught to read and write Swahili and English language, trained in computer proficiency and English fluency. The village does not have libraries; neither do the villagers own books or newspapers. Books are, as a matter of fact a luxury, our attempt is to make books democratic. This was devised mainly because there are only primary schools in the village; the government schools are quite far off. Due to heavy expenses and difficulty in commuting, most of them stop their studies after primary education.
Q. Was your first appeal on Facebook? What was the response?
A. I had put up a status message on Facebook saying, ‘why is it that India has not been able to productively engage in the issues of the people in Eastern Africa, in spite of having a long standing relationship with it.’ A friend responded asking, ‘why not start?’ It was this response that made me think of how I can contribute to this place and thus the idea of a Learning Centre evolved. I had put up several queries regarding fund raising and cataloguing books and most of my queries were answered by Facebook friends.
The initial response to my appeal for English books, CDs, DVDs, song books, story books, action song CDs
as donation to the Kichankani library was tremendous. It is this flood of response and queries that made me start the FB page ‘Kichankani Library’. It connects one to “Kichankani, a village in Tanzania, where we are trying to set up a learning centre and drinking water a reality.” It is an idea that is growing through FB. People from all over Kerala, various parts of India and certain parts of Middle East too are getting in touch with us through the FB page. We have got a great response from Dubai. Around 1200 books have already reached the library from there. Books are being collected from all over India at Kochi and will be shipped from there by end of this month. We need more of Swahili books, hence I have appealed to those who are buying books online to try and buy those. We are also trying to catalogue the books as and when it arrives.
The book collections are being coordinated and managed through group chats on FB. Even the first reports on this initiative were published on Malayalam online portals like Azhimukham, Asianetnews web and it was based on the updates on these that Deccan Chronicle published a story. Thus, it is completely a social media initiative.
Q. How do you communicate to the natives? How excited were they about this project? Do they know about the huge inflow of books?
I reached Tanzania in 2014 after my marriage. As my husband works as a Hotel Manager here, we stayed in Dar es Salaam. I started researching on the problems faced by Tanzanian women who work as domestic helps in the houses of foreign women with the intention of enrolling for PhD in Dar es Salaam University. As I got pregnant with my baby, I had to leave my research midway. It was my friend Khadija, a Tanzanian woman who helped learn a lot about the land and its people. By then, we shifted to a place called Amani. The hotel in which my partner works in Amani has no villagers or community life within 10 kms of its vicinity. There are no neighbours either. The only means to communicate to the outside world is through the people who come to work in the farms or while going vegetable shopping. When my son started playing with the children of these workers, I learnt more about them. I started a small learning community where they would teach me Swahili in return for teaching them English. I learned their issues through such interactions.
The lack of books to teach and the huge response to the appeal led to a formal meeting with the village head. He agreed to let us use two rooms in the half-built building for the library. He assured that the villagers are together in this and declared a village meeting the next day to constitute a library committee. We update him on a regular basis and share photos with him. Kichankani library is the dream of the villagers. It is their struggle.
Q. Have you got negative response for your initiative? How do you respond to such comments?
A. Of course, several. Some of the posts questioned the necessity of working in a random village in Tanzania when there are underdeveloped villages like Attapadi in Kerala. I see nothing but shameless racism in these comments. I wouldn’t hesitate to say that those making these statements have no idea about Tanzania or Attappady. I think it is important that I give back, in whatever little way possible, to the society that facilitates healthy and stable living conditions for my family and me. After all, this is where we are earning our daily bread from! I’m merely doing my bit to better the place.
Also, since most of those who raised this question are residents of Kerala, unlike me, I think they are the ones who should take up those issues. They can collect useful information on the traditional rituals, rites, skills, art forms, farming methods, beliefs, nature of the place, record them, devise methods to conserve them and may be build the first nature-friendly library as well! I hope those who are so concerned about the issues of Attappadi will surely work towards making this idea a reality.
Q. What does Kichankani library mean for the villagers?
A. The upcoming Kinchankani library projects the politics of overcoming hurdles through mutual cooperation. The library is being built 35 kilometers away from the developed city of Dar es, has no clean drinking water, adequate medical facilities, or primary education. The library is a symbol against the promises of development, a symbol against the assumption that was created by the exploitative colonial countries, of the ‘Dark Continent’. It is a symbol of defiance. It is a means to equip the villagers with the language of the exploiter. Hence Learning Centre intends to make them proficient both in English and Swahilli. Internet opens up a whole new world, proving information instantly. Hence computer proficiency is also another factor we are concentrating on.
There is a project that is aimed at digging a well for providing clean drinking water to the villagers of Kichankani. But due to administrative issues, opening a bank account has been delayed. As soon as it is sorted out, we will try and finish that project as the building and effective functioning of the Learing Centre depends on its completion.
Those in Delhi who would like to contribute books to the Kichankani library, please write to [email protected]