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Libraries are indispensable

On Tuesday June 20 2017, the Henry Henderson Institute (HHI) hall was packed with people of varied age groups. They were guests of Jacaranda School of Orphans which presented a library to HHI Primary School.

The library has been named after Luc Deschamps, Executive Director of Jacaranda and Honorary Consul in Malawi of France. The Jacaranda Foundation is currently operating three public libraries in Blantyre; one in Chemboma Village, Newlands, Chigumula, another at Trade Fair in (Stand 82) and a third one at Jacaranda Cultural Centre, Top Mandala. They have already set up two primary school libraries one at Chigumula Primary School and another one at Misesa Primary School.

Concert performances by pupils of both Jacaranda and HHI made the occasion graceful. Among the distinguished guests was the local Member of Parliament Aaron Sangala backed by a chorus of women in political party uniforms. The Chairman of the Book Publishers Association of Malawi Alfred Msadala concluded his speech with a thrilling poem. What I spoke I will partially repeat here but will add that which I did not say because time was limited.

The value of libraries was known even in ancient civilisations both by individuals and monarchs. The earliest libraries were established in Egypt and Mesopotamia, then Greece. The most famous library was established at Alexandria by the Macedonia rulers of Egypt in the period following conquests of Egypt by Alexander the Great.

During Europe’s late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, many scholars collected ancient manuscripts. The invention of the printing press in the 15th century gave enhanced impetus to the building of both personal and institutional libraries.

A wealthy industrialist who had no formal education, Andrew Carnegies of the United States endowed 1,700 libraries in the US and Great Britain.

Libraries preserve knowledge of the past which quite often has proved a foundation for revival of civilisation. Had ancient Greeks and Romans manuscripts not been carefully preserved somewhere, possibly the Renaissance and Reformation could not have taken place. People’s learning undergoes transformation and not always in the right direction. The flowering civilisation of Greece and Rome went into decay in the days following the fall of the Roman Empire. Christian priests indoctrinated people with the idea that this earth was not their home but a mere preparation for the life after we still sing. “This earth is not my home, I am just passing through.

Knowledge is the foundation of civilisation and prosperity. It is embedded in books. The more books people are exposed to, the more opportunity they have of acquiring deeper knowledge of the things that interest them, hence the need of more and better stocked libraries all over Africa and especially in Malawi. The private initiative taken by the Jacaranda Foundation to endow libraries for primary schools is worthy of emulation by all people who have funds to spare.

During my speech at HHII, I alluded to the fact that the library should be stocked with books which are relevant to students’ culture. Jacaranda solicits for books from overseas such as the United States. Such books ought to be carefully selected because some of them may make no appeal to students here. Because certain stories appeal to children in the US, UK or Canada does not mean they would equally to the youth or even adults in Africa. Stories about whales, snow beavers, sharks or Eskimos may be too exotic.

Preferably, story books should be of the character-building type. The American business magnate W Clement Stone wrote in his semi-autobiography The Success System that Never Fails about books by Horatio Alger which had a common theme; he that achieved wealth and success because he was a man of character; the villain failed because he deceived and embezzled. About 300 million copies were sold.

Stone concludes: “We do know that his books inspired thousands of American boys from poor families to strive to do the right thing because it was right and acquire wealth.”

May some American philanthropists donate Horatio Alger’s books to our libraries. Character-building books are what the African youths need not books about bandit heroes like Robin Hood. Poor people need help but not with stolen properties.

Primary schools should be stocked with simplified biographies of great men and women like Michael Faraday, Thomas Edison, Louis Pasteur, Voltaire, Dr Aggrey Jeanne d’Arc, Nelson Mandela, Mother Teresa and Florence Nightingale.

Faraday the scientist and Edison the inventor left school with no formal education and started working by selling newspaper in streets, aged 12. But they read books both in public and private libraries, achieved greatness and fame. We would like the youth of Africa to emulate these achievers.

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