At the Kacyiru based public library, a pupil is leafing through a Macmillan textbook as others play with toys in the children’s reading wing.
One can hardly hear a sound and there is little movement around the building —which by all means is a perfect reading environment.
However, even with tonnes of books neatly stuffed on the shelves, Kigali’s first public library, which opened its doors on April 16, is still short of activity as there are only a handful of pupils and students utilising the facilities.
This, even when one would expect that the currently free library facilities include free Internet to attract at least the young generation.
Funded by the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga, the American Friends of the Kigali Public Library and Marshall Scholars, Rwanda’s first public library is part of the wider efforts to promote literacy by creating a reading culture among Rwandans.
This month — July 19 — the Ministry of Education together with development partners will be officially launching a countrywide campaign dubbed “Rwanda Reads” aimed at developing a reading culture in Rwanda, particularly among children.
“Rwanda Reads” will focus on promoting reading for pleasure and enjoyment rather than study.
Specifically, Kigali Public Library was built to counter the scarcity of books in Rwanda and the resulting lack of a reading culture.
“We are optimistic that once we begin offering all the services that a fully fledged library has to offer — we will get more people coming to the library,” said Jennifer Turatsinze, the director of Kigali Public Library.
"This (public library) was set up as a model to encourage setting libraries across the country. We have a plan of setting up libraries at provincial and district level.”
KPL has so far received about 30,000 book donations though it has also donated books to schools.
In May, the library donated about 18,000 books to 24 schools in Gasabo district.
Currently the library receives on average 80 visitors a day.
“If you going to promote a reading culture it means you have to facilitate access — we plan to support building libraries across country and in schools,” Ms Turatsinze says.
Currently, very few schools have library facilities and these few have poorly stocked libraries.
“We are also encouraging schools to set up libraries where pupils and students can access reading materials. This library was set up as a model to encourage setting up of libraries across the country.”
However, much as the country is keen to promote a reading culture, the cost of reading materials remains a barrier.
“Books are very expensive in Rwanda. If an average book is being sold for Rwf7,000 and the average person earns less than Rwf40,000 a month, it is obviously not possible for a culture of reading to develop apart from among the elite,” says Kate Haines, editorial director, Material Books — a publishing company that is taking part in the campaign to promote a reading culture in Rwanda.
Material Books plans to price books much lower (under Rwf1,000) and hopes to sell books in places like local shops and bus stations — making books accessible to a much wider audience.
Ms Haines notes that though Rwanda has a strong and creative tradition of storytelling, a reading culture is yet to be developed because of the switch from French to English as the language of instruction in schools.
Teachers continue to struggle to be fluent in English.
Until October 2008, education in Rwanda was dispensed in a mixture of its three official languages: Kinyarwanda, French-- which is spoken mainly by the elite, and English, which was added in 1994.
Outside major towns, a majority speak only Kinyarwanda.
Part of the government’s rationale for the switch was that it intended to join the Commonwealth club of mainly former British colonies, which it did in late 2009.
Apart from Bakame which publishes books for children, there haven’t been publishers producing books by Rwandan writers catering specifically to the needs of Rwandan readers.
“To develop a culture of reading, more books need to be published by Rwandan writers, so developing the skills and expertise of Rwandan writers is an important place to start — as well as giving spaces for their writing to be published,” Ms Haines says.
Material Books has hosted writers Ellen Banda-Aaku, Billy Kahora, Doreen Baingana and Nii Ayikwei Parkes in Kigali for public readings events and workshops.
But experts also argue that a reading culture will not develop unless children are encouraged to read widely in school and introduced to the concept of reading for pleasure.
According to a study by the OECD, Reading for Change (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, 2002), reading for pleasure is the most significant factor in a child’s educational achievement and improving students’ reading proficiency could have a strong impact on their opportunities later in life.
If children and young people enjoy reading and are encouraged to read storybooks in English, their language skills and performance across all areas of the curriculum will improve, experts say.
Similarly, books provide knowledge and ideas, and encouraging students to read widely develops critical and creative skills that result in graduates with better opportunities for the future, rather than just respond to existing opportunities.
“Unfortunately, up until now there haven’t been enough story books in schools — and teachers have protected these scarce resources, rather than encourage children to take books out of the classroom and read them in their own time,” Ms Haines says.
The American embassy in Kigali is also spending approximately $10,000 on promoting a reading culture in the country by organising mass public readings.
In April this year, the embassy launched an initiative — Everybody Reads Rwanda — which plans to distribute about 1,000 books.
In the April-May 2012 campaign, A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest Gaines was read, with 500 books used.
“By encouraging people to read the same book and to discuss it, we wanted to demonstrate that reading can be a communal event, it doesn’t have to be a solitary pursuit,” says Susan Falatko, the acting deputy chief of mission US embassy Kigali.
“Through ‘Everybody Reads Rwanda’, we hoped to reach both those who love to read by providing access to a books, as well as to reach those who are not inclined to read normally by making it a group event,” she added.