“He tells me that he learned to read, that he learned English by listening to me read these books.” Jane Meyers was talking about Kenny Hau. He is the director of the outreach program for the Lubuto Library Project, which works in partnership with other non-government organizations (NGOs) to build libraries and library networks in Zambia. Kenny is one of the many young people whose experience with Lubuto led them to a career in the new libraries in Zambia. He is, in Meyers’ words, a success story.
The word “lubuto” means (loosely) enlightenment in Bemba, the language spoken in the northern province of Zambia and part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Meyers lived in Zambia from 1998–2001, and previously in Malawi, where she had worked at building a network of libraries. “Africa really became a part of me,” Meyers explained: she was married there and her first child was born there. While in Zambia, she learned about the center for street children, Fountain of Hope. “It was all run by these young Zambian volunteers, and they were so amazing, and they were so inspiring,” Meyers recalls. She decided to start the Lubuto Library Project, saying, “I’m a believer in picking up and just doing things.”
The project had fairly humble beginnings. Meyers left “some thousands” books in Zambia in a converted shipping container when she left the country, and “in ensuing years, I was hearing reports that children were coming in and learning.” They were passing exams, learning about the world, and out-of-school children were given opportunities to teach themselves. “They needed better and more targeted collections, they needed much better facilities. They needed programming designed and run by Zambians…. That was really the genesis.”
“We are the only people who are doing what we’re doing,” Meyers said. Other organizations “don’t have the vision that a librarian does…. One thing that’s really important is how to work respectfully with human beings.” Meyers explained that the Lubuto Library Project is a synergistic organization that works with Zambia and other NGOs, which in library development is, unfortunately, unique: “I get really angry when I see people who are just working in isolation,” said Meyers. The Lubuto Library Project has made an effort to ensure that countries understand that they are respected, and that Lubuto is not looking to build and run like other organizations they may have encountered: “It really boils down to respect.”
According to Meyers, the Lubuto Library Project’s name sounds misleading. “‘Project’ implies something that’s just done in a particular period of time… ‘we’re helping these people do such and such and then we leave,’ and we’re not. We are establishing sustainable and permanent institutions in partnership with our library colleagues in Zambia so that they continue.” (Meyers has spoken to people in Malawi, Rwanda, Tanzania and other countries, and Lubuto hopes to expand to those countries once the system in Zambia is essentially self-sufficient.)
It may not be the grandest organization, but it means quite a bit to everyone who has worked with it. “I work out of a spare room in my house in Washington DC,” Meyers said, explaining that one of the hardest things about being a “distance librarian” is the physical separation from one’s work.
Meyers visited Boston University Libraries to thank librarians here for their work in a related project which also has helped the work of Zambians to reclaim their literary heritage. According to Beth Restrick, head of BU’s African Studies Library, community libraries throughout Zambia were dispersed or destroyed following independence in the wake of the push for national unity. As a result, literature in Zambia’s 70 or so languages, including Silozi, Nyanja/Chichewa, Bemba, Tumbuka and Yao, were largely forgotten and lost. Meanwhile, Africana libraries in institutions across Europe and the United States, BU’s African Studies Library among them, had been collecting many of the titles in these languages.
Jane Meyers decided to visit the Library of Congress to see what Zambian resources they had acquired . She identified 33 titles in their collection and shared them with Mulenga Kapwepwe, Chairperson of the National Arts Council of Zambia (and founding member of Lubuto’s Advisory Board). Work began to scan these works and create a digital archive. (Here is a video clip of Malenga Kapwepwe talking about the value of these books:
James Armstrong, former head of the African Studies Library here at BU (1973-77) knew Jane and her family in Africa while working for the Library of Congress African Field Office. He was aware of this project and suggested to Jane that BU’s Africana collections might also contain titles valuable to their growing collection. Jane wrote to Beth Restrick who sent Jane a list of Zambian language titles. She in turn shared it with Mulenga who immediately identified 62 titles of interest.
Jane decided to come to Boston University to visit our library and look at the collections herself. BU Librarians have since identified more titles to consider adding to the Zambian digital archive. The project is working closely with the Zambian National Archives and the Zambian Library Service. This ambitious project aims to continue seeking out these works, bringing them back to Zambia, a nation reclaiming its literary heritage.
Meyers made sure when she came to BU to talk to the African Studies librarians in person because she wanted them to know their impact on Zambia. “This is what librarians live for,” she said. “This is why we do it. For the people here to know that what they have done, over the years and are doing now, is helping restore a culture’s heritage to them….. The world is getting smaller and smaller… and librarians can be real heroes. We should celebrate that.”
Pictures and story by Micaela Brody.