Township library opens hearts

The 1st Bedfordview Girl Guides head up the stairway of the Mail & Guardian's premises in Rosebank, Johannesburg. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

The 1st Bedfordview Girl Guides head up the stairway of the Mail & Guardian's premises in Rosebank, Johannesburg. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

It is Sunday morning and more than 20 children wait in Neo Mathetsa’s small yard to start their weekly literacy and performance art lessons.

Mathetsa started an “underground” library in the township of Mohlakeng near Randfontein on the West Rand after the community burned down the local library during service delivery protests earlier this year.

He and 10 other young people, who collectively call themselves the Mohlakeng Youth Movement, started an interactive library where children, the youth and their parents can take out books, learn to read and debate topical issues.

The Mail & Guardian is supporting the library, a tiny one-room-house-cum-library-cum-performance-stage with precast walls and a corrugated iron ceiling, tucked behind Mathetsa’s mother’s four-room house. 

Here, books come to life.

“Don’t just say it, let’s project,” says Mathetsa to the group of children huddled around him. “When you read you don’t just read for you, you read for others.” He takes out two books from a refuse bag and gives them to two children to read out passages aloud.

A lack of books is something the library no longer has to worry about. Since the M&G wrote about the project in February and asked our readers to “donate a book” towards the library, donations have come in from all over the country.

Both the M&G‘s Johannesburg and Cape Town offices have started to resemble second-hand bookstores, with boxes and plastic bags full of novels, textbooks and biographies.

Girls on a mission
The first time the library team came to the M&G‘s Johannesburg office, they were met by a group of members from the 1st Bedfordview Girl Guides.
Adult leader Karen Jones told the M&G that the Guides identified a need for reading as part of the eighth millennium development goal at the beginning of the year and started collecting books.

“I heard about the M&G‘s appeal to donate books to an underground library on the radio,” said Jones. “I bought the newspaper so that we have the article. I read it to the girls and they said ‘yes, we want to do this’.”

The 1st Bedfordview Girl Guides with their boxes full of books for the Mohlakeng library. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

Mathetsa, who was in the reception area at the time with other library team members, asked the Guides why they believed it was important to donate books to the children of Mohlakeng.

Alexandra Fry (10) replied: “We need to show the world South Africa shouldn’t only be known for the bad things. We should also show we are able to commit to the things we start. And we need to start our education.”

Robyn Austin (13) said: “When you read a book, it takes you somewhere. If you’re reading a book and you enjoy it, it can change you.”

Expansion and logistics
As more books flooded into the one-roomed library, the management and storage of the books became an issue, which attracted nongovernmental organisations and other institutions to the project; most offered to train and teach the library team. Innovative ideas of how to expand the space and create a mobile library for children, their older siblings and parents were also shared with potential sponsors.

Wellness4Life Foundation, an NGO working in partnerships with township communities that teaches them about wellness and health, donated 1 000 books to the library. When they delivered the books it was clear there was no space to place them. There was also no space to park the car that brought them as the space outside the library is used as a stage.

“So we thought we need to get containers to donate to the library,” said Alfred Mikosi, the executive director of Wellness4Life. “We will provide three containers – the first to be used as a library, the second as an office space and the third as storage space.”

Mikosi said the library inspired his foundation and they have since decided to partner with them. Wellness4Life has helped the team register as a formal NGO. The foundation will act as mentors and teach the team the skills necessary to run a library and a wellness centre.

“The underground library shows a possibility of a new culture, a possibility of a new model of a library that is proactive and responsive to the needs of the community rather than a library that is like a dinosaur, waiting for people to come to it,” said Mikosi.

Branching out
He said his foundation, together with the Mohlakeng library, would work on building similar libraries in other townships over the next five years.

“We see it as a partnership that is a win-win for everyone: the community, the youth and the children. We see the underground library as a catalyst of rebuilding that community in many ways. A model that can be used all over South Africa could come out of that,” said Mikosi.

Other priorities that were identified were the need for shelves, computers and training for the day-to-day running of a library. Infolink, a South African mailing list for teacher-librarians, committed to giving support in both library administration training and training in the day-to-day running of an NGO. Infolink will supply the underground library with books, shelving, magazines and stationery.

Ahmed Smiley, the founder and director of Siyafunda Communication Technology Centre, is in discussion with the Mohlakeng library team about assisting with a computer laboratory for the children. The centre is a public space where people can access computers, the internet and other digital technologies that enable them to gather information, create and learn. It focuses on the use of digital technologies to support communities and social development.

Other organisations and individuals have contacted the M&G and have expressed their desire to help the Mohlakeng library team, including helping with the logistics of transporting books from the M&G Cape Town offices to Johannesburg.

Library website
Theophilus van Rensburg Lindzter, director of communications management support at Learning Academy Worldwide, told the M&G the organisation provided support focused on education in Southern Africa.

“The underground library seems to align so closely to our vision and it is just natural to find a way to come alongside the initiative,” he said.

The organisation has offered to donate the costs for registering and hosting the library website, a content management system and 20 hours of training.

In an interview with the M&G, Tebogo Links, a member of the library, expressed his appreciation.

“We were able to meet a lot of people who wanted to give us books that we can use in the community, so we can continue to teach the youth how to read,” he said.

“We have also been given training opportunities and now we could have our own computer lab. Most of us have never owned a computer.”

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