BIBCOBAZ (Friday, 2011 August 26)

August 26, 2011

[Here’s another one by Timothy, about the Bibliothèque Communitaire at his post and its founding, mostly driven by his postmate Kim. It’s also in the Education Newsletter, which just went out.]


In the interest of truth, slight liberties have been taken with regards to reality.

Morning. First week of January.

Sitting behind the counter of his hardware stall, Ndjassap saw the mayor’s car speed up the hill through the market and toward his l’Hôtel de Ville. Ndjassap called Kimberly; she called me. The three of us met on the front steps. "Have you got it?" I asked Kim. She pulled from her bag a plastic file folder and, from it, a contract for the mayor to sign, stamp and sort away in what must be the most cavernous of all filling cabinets, or wherever it is paperwork goes to rest. Thinking ahead, we’d left the date blank. Our mayor, you see, lives in France. And when he’s not there, he’s in either Yaounde or Douala. Occasionally he appears in village, to check in — so we had to be ready. Ndjassap had been on stakeout for weeks: following leads, heeding rumors of the mayor’s return, but mostly just sitting, an eye to the road, and waiting for his car to show.

From the very start, the library was Kimberly’s idea (I’ve played, at best, a supporting role — a translator, a proofreader, a dependable, if dispassionate, handlender). If you ask her the idea’s origin, she’ll gladly tell the story. I’ve heard it over a dozen times myself (a dozen versions, too: abridged, extended, English, French, first and third person; I proofread the written copy).

Kimberly’s francophone grandmother gifted her a French translation of a very popular children’s novel about an eponymous boy wizard, which, once in Africa, she read aloud with her landlord’s young daughter each day after school. At first the young girl was timid; startled to shame by her own voice, she listened as Kimberly read. As the story progressed, it captured the girl’s imagination, and very soon she became frustrated with the pace of Kimberly’s French. By the end of the book, it was the young girl who did most of the reading. The experience inspired Kimberly, who kicked the idea of a community library around to see who might be interested. When folks she didn’t even know began approaching her in the market, demanding to know how they could help, she put together a plan.

Now, I’m not a cynic, but I am realist. And the implications of being a realist depend largely on one’s view of reality. Which is fine, unless ones reality includes the gnawing suspicion that, despite all our talk of helping the less fortunate, essential human nature has not changed since the days when our cave-dwelling ancestors bashed one another with clubs for food and mating rights, and any net advancement in our turbulent history is due largely to luck.

With that said…

We were lucky. The village development committee had recently constructed a massive community center, a large assembly hall flanked on two sides by split-level wings and a terrace that wrapped around the second floor. Amid the village’s humble constructions, it was a dreamer’s building — a true-to-life, if-you-build-it-they-will-come building — as absurd in scale as it was unknown in function. What interested Kimberly was a large, airy room the southwest corner of the ground floor. She told Njassap this. "You’ll need permission from the village development committee," he said, "but that shouldn’t be a problem." You see, Ndjassap, fils-du-village and all-around useful guy, was committee secretary.

We met the President of the village development committee over drinks in his home — the guy who runs the photo boutique was waging coaxial warfare with the President’s new plasma screen TV. Fussing with a universal remote control with one hand, a wine glass in the other, he divided his attention between Kimberly and I and the Technicolor snow coming from the TV. Kimberly recounted to the President the story which had inspired her and the reason we’d come to see him — that we wanted to put a library in his new community center.

"Do you have a DVD player?" he asked. "How do I switch from the cable to the DVD?" The photo tech answered him, "press AUX on the remote. Switch from auxiliary 1 to auxiliary 2."

The matter of TV settled, the President addressed our concern. "It’s a great idea!" he said. "Why hadn’t I thought of that? You know, I had, in fact. Remember, Ndjassap, mon petit, when I said we should have a library in the community center?"

The next morning, the President met us at the nearly-completed community center and told us to choose the room we wanted for the library. Kimberly pointed out the room in the southwest corner of the ground floor. The President agreed that it was the best choice of rooms for a library. "Of course," he said in parting, "you’ll need to get permission from the mayor." Thus did we meet on the steps of L’Hôtel de Ville, that first week in January.

The mayor seemed enthusiastic about the idea. "A great step in the development of our youth," he called it. He promised us furniture. He promised us books. He said he’d find money in the budget to pay a librarian’s salary. We were not foolish; to hold him to his word, we typed all this up in a contract. He read it over, scribbled a dozen edits over the type and handed it back.

We were soon to realize that apart from being a politician and a successful businessman (he owned a travel agency) our mayor was also a rigorous grammarian. It wasn’t just the contract. Every document that passed through his office underwent the same scrutiny: a typo circled here, a misconjugated verb — reconjugated — there; words were stricken throughout and synonyms put in their place. And each time, Kimberly promptly made the corrections, paid the 250 francs for the printing and returned, only for the Mayor to then make more changes — or worse, to find that he’d left. I don’t know how many times she did this; I was often busy at the high school during her dealings with the Mayor.

But it, nevertheless, seemed to me like the Mayor was dragging his feet. Ndjassap accounted for this. He said that the Mayor wanted to leave his mark in every document that passed by him. That way he might take credit at a later date should the library succeed (he was already claiming responsibility for the construction of the community center). Kimberly admitted that Ndjassap was likely right, but it didn’t seem to discourage her at all. "Who cares who gets the credit," she said, "as long as it gets done?"

That was Kimberly being a realist, only her reality and mine didn’t gel. I suspected something more sinister is the Mayor’s intentions. I felt it in his handshake, read it in his smile, heard it in the gaps between his words. It was an act I’d seen before. It was salesmanship. He was friendly; he made promises, told us just what we came to hear. But behind all his talk lay no action — not that we’d really asked him to do anything other than sign some papers, yet his reticence to do so was holding up the project. I was sure the Mayor was purposefully baiting us. But to what end?

A rift began to form between Kimberly and Ndjassap and me, though no one spoke of it. From the beginning I’d had my doubts about the library. I feared that, as a project, it wasn’t sustainable. I also feared for Kimberly, that she was in love with this project and was thus blinded from reality. How was she going to take it if she forced this project forward and it fails? And if something as simple as getting a couple papers signed was so much trouble, what was going to happen once real work had to be done?

But Kimberly, by sheer determination did get the paperwork squared away, and by the first week of March the way was cleared to form the library management committee. Kimberly, Njdassap and I each took a few invitations and posted them conspicuously where responsible and community-spirited people might see them. I hung a few at the high school and made announcements in the professors’ lounge and to my older students.

Kimberly was very hopeful. I was beginning to suspect that her optimism had something to do with her being a nurse. Her reality, as it were, was ingrained with some deep need to help people — and the audacity to believe she could.

She’d been secretly working up a list of people in the community whom she wanted on the library committee and made house calls to invite them to the informational meeting. Her perk and fluster stood in spite of the demise of her other community group, the Community Health Workers, which had been in slow decline ever since Kimberly refused to pay to have the meetings catered. It was all I could do to not point out what seemed obvious to me: people, regardless how motivated at first, will get bored and disillusioned and abandon a cause the moment it no longer aligns with their self interest. I couldn’t tell her that; as a development worker, I shouldn’t have even been thinking that.

The first meeting of the library committee was on March sixth. I wrote a speech for the meeting in which I recounted the story of William Kamkwamba, a young man from Malawi who built a wind-powered generator in his village using junk and a textbook he found in his village library. I’d put more time and energy into that speech than on the entire library project up to that point. I rehearsed it over and over, until I had it memorized. I practiced it in the mirror. I imagined myself speaking before a large crowd. I worked out hand gestures to emphasize key phrases.

Eight people showed up — not quite the full house I’d rehearsed for, but I gave my speech with enthusiasm (though I toned down the hand gestures a bit, to suit the small group). The committee was formed, officers were nominated and voted in, and we agreed to meet the following Sunday to write a constitution.

After a few weeks, a few rough drafts and a few Sunday afternoons spent in the cavernous cement box that would be our library, the committee ratified a constitution. Then we didn’t know what to do.

We were in a slump — not knowing where the next step lay. The library existed on paper, a committee was in place, but physically it was a drafty room, empty save for some plastic chairs. Committee meetings were scheduled each Sunday, but why? What was there to do? People stopped showing up, (a couple times Kimberly and I waited an hour at the library without any other members coming or even calling). As for me, with seminars in Yaounde, training in Bafia, and school vacation looming overhead like a Limbe palm tree, I stopped showing as well.

While I was traveling from post to Yaounde to Bafia and back, Kimberly was busily plugging along. With Ndjassap’s help, she met with village elites. A Deputy Minister born in our village pledged to pay the shipping costs on some three hundred books collected by an old friend of mine in Toulouse. Kimberly got approved a partnership to finance the library management training and construction of our first tables and bookshelves. She met once again with the President of the development committee to inform him that we had found some second hand computers which a returned volunteer was sending over. The President returned from Yaounde a week later with five of the nicest computer desks I’d ever seen. Kimberley traveled back to the states for a friend’s wedding and returned with over a hundred books and a video projector — all donated by friends and family. But what was driving her, even more than her desire to see the library succeed, was knowing that her time in our village was coming to an end. She’d been accepted for a third year extension, in Yaounde, which would begin August first. Out of reluctance to leave her project unfinished, she redoubled her efforts.

By late June, upon returning from a week in Bafia, a series of events occurred that began to change my outlook of the project in general and the library committee in particular. It was a Sunday, and the library committee meeting was scheduled for two. Around two-fifteen, I came up through the market toward the library and saw that not only was every member of the committee there, but they were on time. They were waiting for me.

Kimberly announced that our funding had come through and that we were ready to plan our training. We would also need to schedule a couple days to build the tables and shelves we’d need to get the library up and running. Mr. Wete, whom the committee had elected librarian, told us of his friend, Thierry, a carpentry student at the technical high school, who would be more than happy to help out. We scheduled the build for the following Wednesday and Thursday, then the training for a week after that.

The build went without a hitch. Kimberly took lots of photos for an "Évolution d’une Bibliothèque" poster she was making. At the end of the two days, Thierry, the carpentry student, asked who was going to pay him. Kimberly and I didn’t know what to say. We hadn’t figured labor into the budget, since he was a friend of Mr. Wete, we had just assumed he had volunteered. Madame Linette, a primary school teacher and the committee president, stepped in. She pulled a five thousand franc note from her purse and handed it to the young man. Never did she ask to be reimbursed.

The two day training went well. We went over circulation procedures, book sorting and labeling, security and customer service. During a session on budgeting, the committee brainstormed some pretty good ideas for generating revenue that could very well make the library self-sufficient. They even agreed on a reasonable salary for our librarian — a subject that I’d been afraid to even bring up for fear of starting a terrible debate — without so much as an objection. I was beginning to feel guilty for ever having doubted this group of people.

The following Monday, six committee members, Kimberly, and I took a field trip. We’d heard of several libraries in the province and traveled to three of them to see how they operated. The first was in the district capital and sponsored by the the city’s cultural preservation council. The building was locked, and when I peeked through the dusty window I saw that the shelves were bare and books were stacked on the floor. Neglected, it had become a mausoleum for books. When the man responsible for the library finally arrived, he stepped inside, grabbed a sack from the desk and hurried away — claiming that he had more pressing affairs but that we should come back another time.

The second library, tucked away in a church compound, was established with the help of a volunteer a couple years ago and was now being looked over by a current volunteer posted in the village. It was a lending library, open to the community and furnished by the Books for Cameroon project. It was small, but well supplied, and we took note of their interesting technique for handling circulation.

The committee members were most impressed by the third library. Housed in the high school, it was open to all members of the community. Beside the library’s entrance was a large bucket with a spigot, a bucket beneath the spigot and a towel beside that. A sign on the wall ordered people to wash their hands with soap and water before touching any materials in the library. The librarian was a young man, a baccalaureate too poor to pay university tuition, who would be working the fields all day if it weren’t for his modest librarian’s salary. During our visit with him, a group of children came in and began playing a multiplication card game. "That’s our only real problem," said the librarian. "We have all these books, but the children will not read them. They only want to play games."

So that just about brings us up to date. After training, we spent a few days labeling and shelving books. On July 23, amid the din of Biya loyalists gathered in the assembly hall next door, we opened the doors of the library for the first time. Village elites visiting from the city stopped in throughout the day with promises of support for the fledgling library. Many congratulations were thrown our way, many glad-handshakes and pats on the back. As with nearly every good idea in the planning and execution of this library, the idea to open the library so the elites in village for the rally could see the results of the community’s hard work (and to present them with the long list of additional needs) was Kimberly’s; and though I have long been trying to abandon my cautious pessimism as it concerns this project, I fought her on it. "We’re not ready," I said. "Not all the books are labeled. What if one of those grands comes in here and wants to take over, or someone tries to install their unemployed cousin as our librarian?"

Of course, none of my fears came to pass. There was no coup. Kimberly lured a few children in off the street — so timid she had to literally force the books into their hands and set them down to read. The day went smoothly, and the library has been open nearly every day since. We’re not lending out books just yet, but with luck that will come soon. Sadly, Kimberly has left us; she’s now in Yaounde (working far too hard, I’ll wager).

We still face many challenges in the months ahead. The computer desks which were so graciously donated are bare, the computers promised us having somehow disappeared. Most folks in the village don’t even know what a library is, and we’ve got to inform them. I’m still nervous about the motivation of the committee itself — what happens when the newness wears off? Our librarian hasn’t been showing up regularly and complains that he’s not being paid enough.

Other question beg answers, too.

How are we going to get more books? How are we going to cover the operating costs? Protect against theft? Even keep the doors open and prevent our library from becoming another mausoleum for books? How will we manage the threat — in my mind, at least — of some grand coming in and wrecking all we’ve worked for?

But what troubles me the most is myself. With the committee now looking solely to me for guidance, I fear I won’t live up to the task. Perhaps I’m not giving them enough credit, perhaps they’ll do fine with little help from me. I’ve underestimated them before, and I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

So I sit in this library and wait. Mr. Wete, our librarian, is sick; so, I’m covering for him. It’s cold out — been this way for four days straight, just fog and drizzle, punctuated by the occasional downpour. Yet, there’s a middle-aged man who suffered the weather to make it here. He’s sitting at one of the empty computer desks with a novel. He says he was here yesterday, too. A group of children lay on mats in the corner, whispering and pointing at the pictures in a story book — the oldest child is reading to the younger ones. I, too, am flipping through a book. I put it down every few minutes to look around, reflect and jot down these words.

I don’t know what the future holds for this library, and up to now that’s really bothered me. Then again, Kimberly couldn’t have predicted all this seven months ago, when the library existed only in her mind, though I’m not sure what would have happened had she done nothing.

I’m going to have to step up my role, be more positive, perhaps even idealist. That’s not to say I’ll stop being a realist, but I’ve got a feeling, call it a hunch, that reality is not something one must accept as is. It’s four in the afternoon. The middle-aged man shelves his book where he can find it tomorrow, the children hand me their books and head outside. I shelve the children’s books and sweep out some of the mud they’ve tracked in. Then I shut the windows, lock the door and walk home through the mist.

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