URLCODA is the acronym for Uganda Rural Literacy and Community Development Association. It is centered in the West Nile region, which is in the extreme northwest of Uganda, in the corner between the borders with Congo and Sudan. The region is quite remote, and its people are very poor, especially since communication with the rest of Uganda was difficult, and many people were displaced, during the long years when the Lord's Resistance Army was fighting the government.
URLCODA began at Makerere University in the late 1990s when students from the region got together to address the poverty. They were led by Willy Ngaka, who was studying adult literacy in the Institute for Adult Education. Now it is a fully recognized NGO with an active Positive Group (comprised of people who are HIV positive), many affiliated adult literacy groups, and a fully developed practice of teaching intergenerational literacy (in which unschooled adults and primary school dropouts teach each other); and, since it is a member of UgCLA, it has, of course, a library.
When I first visited this library in January of this year it consisted only of 250 books, which were kept in a storeroom in Willy's house in the village of Lokotoro. The library coordinator, Jasindo Afebua, would take the books out as needed for the intergenerational classes, which were held in the garage; there was no dedicated library building. The books, as well as the plastic chairs that the library had, had been bought in 2008 with a grant of $1000 from the US Embassy, distributed through UgCLA.
This year, I am glad to say, UgCLA has been able to help URLCODA again. Late in 2009, the Hawk Children's Fund asked to identify appropriate sites for a Rural Solar Demonstration Project. The Fund would provide $15,000 in all to provide solar electricity and to do any necessary building work for it to be used. We recommended the URLCODA and Mpolyabigere Community Libraries to divide the grant between them. URLCODA thereupon completed a building that it had already begun in Willy's compound, roofing it with iron sheets that it had already secured for another purpose. The solar electricity was installed last week, and the new building was officially opened on Sunday. Almost immediately it was full of children busily reading.
But that is not all. I was there last week not only to see the new library building but also to deliver more books and another, smaller, sum of money, for URLCODA's Positive Group to use. The books are on health issues, and the group will translate a few of the easier ones into Lugbara and will also write about their own experiences with HIV in the same language. The grant for this work again came from the Hawk Children's Fund, to which we are all very grateful.
In addition, I visited no fewer than nine other libraries in the region, all of which are affiliated to URLCODA. Eight of them are already members of UgCLA, and one other will be joining soon. Most of these "libraries" are actually primary school classrooms where an adult literacy group is allowed to meet, and such books as they have may be used by the primary school children too. One of the most successful is the Queen of Heaven Community Library in Yumbe, near the Sudan border. Here there is an active women's group, which is engaging in a number of income generating activities and which was one of the winners of books in UgCLA's Children's Book Project that was funded by Pockets of Change (see my post of May 5, 2010). The books are now displayed on a bookshelf in the classroom, and there is a regular timetable for children to come in and read them. Others are less well off. One, at a village called Endru, was constrained to leave the primary school where it was started and now meets under a tree in a compound a mile or two down the road. It has virtually no books, but it displays with pride a computer keyboard that the women made out of clay; their leader learned her letters from this sort of keyboard, and she can now write her name on a real computer. Another, the Sida Community Library at Tuku village, used to have books, but they, and the shelf on which they were kept, got eaten by termites. So the women resolved to put up a building for their library. They made the bricks themselves and got the walls up four years ago; but they got stuck at the roof because they had no money for iron sheets. So the walls still stand, while the women meet under a tree and learn their letters from a blackboard.
The needs in such a region are so great as to be overwhelming. The primary schools, however, are beginning to get books as the government finally gets round to providing them. At one school we saw a lovely set of Primary One readers in Lugbara, though we were distressed that the packets had not yet been opened; and in another the head teacher was actively promoting the use of the school's books and appreciated the adult group's commitment to reading. URLCODA is also producing little readers in Lugbara, and UgCLA has already contributed significantly through its support (thanks to the American Embassy and the Hawk Children's Fund) of the "mother library" at Lokotoro. I believe that we should continue to build up that library so that it can lend books to the other ones and, as Willy suggested, have the primary schools send their children to Lokotoro on a regular basis to spend a night and enjoy the electricity.
The URLCODA library and its affiliates are the kind of institution that UgCLA exists to support--and they, in turn, provide the dynamism that sustains UgCLA. It is a wonderfully productive partnership, so my question now is, are there such partnerships among libraries and library associations elsewhere in Africa? And if not, why not?
For more about URLCODA, click here.