"You Mean You Don't Have Books in Print?" Adventures of a Librarian in Nepal

By Barnett, Chip | American Libraries, March 2001 | Go to article overview

"You Mean You Don't Have Books in Print?" Adventures of a Librarian in Nepal


Barnett, Chip, American Libraries


USING A GOAT PATH TO CARRY STONES AND MUD DOWN A MOUNTAIN, WE WERE BUILDING A LIBRARY.

"Just keep putting them in," I said in Nepali, adjusting the conical wicker basket on my back and the strap around my forehead. "I'll tell you when to quit." The village men dumped another couple of boulders into my basket. I staggered bent double. "Okay, that's enough," I said quickly.

"You're sure it's not too heavy?" they asked. "It's fine." I took a wobbly step or two sideways across the steep mountain, and admitted, "Well, you better take one out." They laughed, complying. Head bent down, I couldn't see how full my basket was, but they'd obviously piled it high. I started down the mountain carefully, neck already beginning to hurt. "Chipsir, are you sure you're all right?" they asked. "Yeah," I said, picking my way gingerly along the narrow goat path, veering back and forth as the massive load on my back made me overbalance. By halfway down, my neck was on fire. "Um," I said, "how about taking another out?" They laughed, removed one, and dropped it into another man's already full basket.

Puffing and weaving (and this was downhill), I lurched to the building site and dropped my basket to the ground, proud of myself. My pride lasted for just a few seconds until I saw that in the basket were only two stones, neither longer than my forearm. While I watched, one of my seventh-grade students, a small boy, arrived with a load twice mine. A rail-thin 9th-grade girl with an even heftier load followed him, and then came the 75-year-old withered mother of my best friend with a basket crammed full of stones. I spent the rest of the day carrying buckets of mud.

We were building a library.

This place needs a library

I joined the Peace Corps in January 1998 and was sent to Nepal where I spent two years teaching math to village middle-school children and training primary school teachers at a regional training center. Wedged between Tibet and India, Nepal is one of the most beautiful countries in the world--and one of the poorest. Maleng, the village in the hills where I lived for 14 months, has no telephones, electricity, heat, running water, or toilets. Houses are built of mud and stone with tin or thatched roofs. Everyone is a farmer. Most families have some livestock (water buffalo, goats, oxen). Since the animals spend all their lives tied up in sheds, the villagers have to scramble around the mountains with a sickle cutting grass and leaves. It's a hard life, the women often working from before dawn to well after sunset.

It's not, in particular, a life that allows much time or money for reading. Moreover, two-thirds of Nepalis are illiterate, so there's little demand for books. Nepal's parliamentary democracy is 10 years old, with most people intensely curious about politics and current events, yet the villagers' only source of news is the government-run Radio Nepal. How could a former librarian think anything else than what I did: "What this place needs is a good public library."

Creating a spark

I had trouble getting people interested in the idea--or rather they liked the idea, but that was as far as it went, and if it wasn't for a few villagers really pushing a library, the idea would never have survived. So, at the middle school where I taught, I started a tiny 100-book library: Half were books in Nepali, the other half used picture books donated by my old library, the Rockbridge Regional Library in Lexington, Virginia.

We had no shelves, yet the library was a big hit with kids waiting in line each day to check out a book. These were children who'd never seen a book in their lives, other than their textbooks (which don't count). Strangely, they all wanted the Nepali books and none wanted the English books, not even the gorgeous, full-color dinosaur books. Language is certainly one factor--the children take English in school from the first grade on, but learn little--and a student apologetically gave me another reason--the American books were too big and too heavy. …

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