From Kerala to Tanzania: a library of one’s own

March 7, 2015

photo1Somy Solomon, wife, mother and social activist, is an Indian expatriate in rural Tanzania. It upset her that villagers would sell their farmland to construction companies at knockdown prices, unaware of its value. A lack of education, she says, is trapping local women and children into a life of slum living and domestic servitude.

Determined to change this, Solomon launched a social media campaign to set up a library in Kichankani, the village 40 km (25 miles) from Dar es Salaam that supplies many of the employees at the hotel which brought Solomon and her husband to Africa in the first place.

Without even stepping out of the village, she has collected thousands of books via a Facebook appeal. Donations have come from India, Dubai and Singapore.

“I wanted to remove the cloud of ignorance,” says Solomon, 28, a native of Kerala. As well as supplying books, the library will serve as a learning centre to improve villagers’ Internet proficiency.

Her plans don’t end there: she plans to install water pumps and solar panels to produce the electricity on which the library’s computers will run. On a recent trip back to India before International Women’s Day, she spoke to India Insight about her motivation and plans for the village she now calls home.

Q. How did the idea of setting up a library originate?

A: It all started when I shared my concerns about the state of lives in Kichankani through my regular columns on a Malayalam portal and frequent status updates on Facebook. I was met with positive responses to take initiatives that would improve the living conditions. Due to lack of funds and several legal constraints, I finally decided to set up a library instead of a school. This led to the creation of a page called Kichankani Library on Facebook.

It was an uphill task initially, since I faced criticism for wasting my energy and resources around people in a foreign country instead of helping my countrymen. My focus to teach English was also perceived as a drive to convert people to Christianity. But the overwhelming positive responses on the other hand only strengthened my motive.

Q. How is the library progressing?photo4

A: We have so far managed to collect around 6,000 books from India, which will be shipped to Tanzania after our volunteers have catalogued them successfully. A Cochin-based software company agreed to incur the shipment expenses, which was the primary concern for us. A significant number of books are also being shipped from Dubai and Singapore. Once I return to Kichankani, I have to ensure the two unfinished rooms from the village office that have been availed to us for setting up the library are completely constructed. The next step is to start training people to make the library functional.

Q. Do you plan to focus on education alone or do you have plans for other amenities?

A: My primary focus will be to make them proficient in English and Swahili, their local language. Learning English will help them communicate efficiently with the expatriates, who are usually from Asian countries, and keep them informed of their rights and privileges. Teaching Swahili is also important to preserve their rich culture and traditions. But apart from that I am also focusing on setting up bore wells to provide drinking water. Three people have already come forward to provide us with the machines to dig and purchase pumps and motors. I even plan to set up solar panels to generate electricity that is needed to run the computers at the library.

Q. How do you manage being a mother, wife and social activist at the same time?

A: It was initially difficult for me, as I had to take care of my baby, regularly write for the portal and visit the village frequently to keep the villagers in the loop about progress. But they were very forthcoming in helping me. They would take care of my baby when I would be busy looking after the managerial work. My husband would also be supportive and provide me with the means to commute as travelling in the remote areas of the village is difficult. Due to the lack of seamless Internet access, his friends would coordinate arranging books on Facebook. It’s a team effort.

Q. Do you have a role model who inspired this project?

A: Being a woman, I have experienced all kinds of crisis like emotional trauma and physical exploitation. I had my own share of ups and downs personally and professionally but what kept me going was the inspiration from my role model, Sojourner Truth. An abolitionist and feminist from South Africa, she has always motivated me to stand up for the right cause without any fear.

I used to read tales about her fight against racial inequalities which left a mark in shaping my early years. A lot of African women whom I know have been gang-raped and exploited, but they overcome it and move on. And that is what amazed me. I really admire African women for their strength of character and I think Indian women should seek inspiration from them.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow Robert on Twitter @bobbymacReports | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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