Libraries Are Africa’s Future: Nkem Osuigwe
Dr. Nkem Osuigwe’s first experience of the magic of a library was at the tender age of five, when her mother left her with a local librarian to go to the market during a civil war. The impressions she took away with her that day lasted a lifetime and led her into a career working in libraries and with librarians that spans over 35 years. Nkem strongly believes libraries are more than books, and that the power they hold to impact, tell and preserve the history of communities remains untapped in Africa. This is the work that she and the team at AfLIA, the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions are dedicated to: equitable access to information and knowledge for all. Nkem wants librarians to go beyond being disseminators of information, to information leaders in their different countries, telling the stories of their communities on a global platform. She’s the chair of the Public Library section of AfLIA.
Mentioned in the podcast
Dr Nkem Osuigwe Transcript
Thu, 4/7 3:29PM • 52:17
library, people, librarians, Africa, women, Nigeria, community, books, world, learn, knowledge, children, motherhood, history, open, inspiring, AfLIA, Wikisource, WikiBooks, Wikimedia Foundation
Dr Nkem Osuigwe, Betty Kankam-Boadu
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 00:00
In my culture, women could aspire, but most women could not aspire to be all they wanted to be, because sometimes there were invisible barriers. Sometimes there were those things that kept women down, not because they wanted to. And they have to bend to those barriers, because that meant their existence.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 00:27
Hello and welcome to Inspiring Open, candid conversations with influential women whose careers and open ethos have pushed the boundaries of what it means to build community and succeed as a collective. I am Betty Kankan-Boadu, a journalist and women’s rights advocate. Join me as I explore the fascinating backstories behind Africa’s most tenacious female personalities. Inspiring Open is a podcast series from Wiki Loves Women, a project of Wiki in Africa. Be inspired, be challenged, be bold!
Our guest today is Dr. Nkem Osuigwe. Her first experience of the magic of a library was at the tender age of five, when her mother left her with a local librarian to go to the market during a civil war. The impressions she took away with her that day lasted a lifetime and led her into a career working in libraries and with librarians that spans over 35 years. Nkem strongly believes libraries are more than books, and that the power they hold to impact, tell and preserve the history of communities remains untapped in Africa. This is the work that she and the team at AfLIA, the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions are dedicated to: equitable access to information and knowledge for all. Nkem wants librarians to go beyond being disseminators of information, to information leaders in their different countries, telling the stories of their communities on a global platform. She’s the chair of the Public Library section of AfLIA. Now on Inspiring Open, Dr. Nkem Osuigwe.
What does Nkem mean? I’m sure there’s a meaning to your name.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 02:18
Nkem means mine. Nkem means my own. But the full name is Nkem Nkem Nkemdilim, my own that belongs to me. It’s mine, it belongs to me. And the story behind it then was that my father said that the land he bought that his kindred wanted to take it from him. And it was around that time that I was born. So he now named me my own belongs to me.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 02:42
Which part of Nigeria are you now? Whereabouts in Nigeria are you now?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 02:45
I’m in South East, that’s in Anambra State.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 02:49
Okay. Is that where you grew up?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 02:50
Yes. You know, there are more than 200 tribes in in Nigeria and I am Ibo.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 03:00
Tell me about your childhood. How was growing up like and can you describe the era you grew up in and how it particularly was for women?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 03:09
I was born in the mid ’60s. And my first memories actually were that of a civil war. My part of the country wanted to opt out of the country and there was a war. So those were my first memories, of seeing my brother, one of my brothers that came back from the war front, standing with my father taking pictures. I was on my father’s shoulders, I remember that. When the … what do they call them? Airplanes with guns will come, we had these underground bunkers where my mother would take us to.
Then, a striking memory that I remember was immediately after the war. I was five years, yep, I was five years and the war ended before I turned five. And around that time my mother had another baby, because I’m five years older than my immediate junior. When she had the baby, my father used to not to be around too much. It was just my mother. And I and the two that are older than me. She wanted to go to the market. And she didn’t want to leave the baby with me. She felt that I wouldn’t look after the baby well enough, I’ll be naughty enough to forget that I had a baby to look after. She took me along, carried the baby on her back, tied with wrapper, and we started going to the market. It was a long way off. Along the way, she now said if she takes me to the market that’s extra work for her, let her check if the library was open. She checked, and it was open, and she dropped me there. And it was in that place that I felt the first sense of who I am as a person. Who I am, except… I don’t know how to put it, I had that sense of acceptance. Because that day, we had this woman librarian telling kids there a story. There were a lot of kids. It was after the war. The clothes were not beautiful and nobody had real shoes. The librarian took us in, she now told us one story, about the competition between the wind and the sun. That the wind and the sun were in a competition to see who is stronger. And that they kept on arguing until they saw a man walking on the road, carrying a load and putting on a big coat. They now agree that whoever makes the man take off his coat is the stronger person. This librarian, not minding how we looked, not minding anything, told us stories. She’ll go from one side of the room to the other, she’ll blow like the wind. She’ll shine like the sun, you know, that kind of thing. And all of us we’re like, hey, this is good. And eventually, the sun won the competition. But in telling that story she opened my own eyes to possibilities outside of the things that I’ve known. That there are greater things that one can experience, all within the pages of a book. And that’s how I fell in love with it.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 06:59
Your first experience in the library, obviously, as you describe it, was fantastic and great. As you say you felt some level of acceptance there.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 07:12
Exactly, that was always the word, acceptance, yeah.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 07:15
Did you go back there?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 07:17
Yeah. When my mother now picked me up eventually… Later I remembered that it was like a story hour. So when my mother now picked me up, I told her everything but she couldn’t take me back as often as I wanted. But I can tell you, I did my primary school, finished my secondary school and I went back to the library, that same library. I applied and got a job as a library assistant. And I worked in that same library for 35 years. Yeah.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 07:55
Wow, for 35 years.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 07:57
Betty Kankam-Boadu 07:59
How did you feel like working in a library you first fell in love with? How was that experience?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 08:07
I tried to let kids know that within books, there is potential that you can never, ever imagine. There are so many other worlds that you can visit, learn new things, learn new words, and then have a broader understanding of who you are or what you want to be in the future. It was great to run the story hour, as you know, it was great to watch children grow up, and at an extent, there was a time that people will drop their kids as young as maybe one-and-a-half years. They could walk, not talk well, but when you read stories to them everywhere will go quiet like that, and they’ll be watching your mouth, watching your hands, as if you are everything right there and then. It’s as if you’re creating a new world for them. I worked in the children’s section for one year plus, then I went on to do my first degree, my second degree, I came back to the library, to the same library. Then states were created, and the old Anambra was carved into two. And Enugu was now in a state and we moved down to Anambra, and again I continued with the library, and I was there until I became the head of the library. I was the head of the library for six years. And it was great watching the library grow. There were 11 libraries in the system, more than 100 plus staff. Because I started work actually at the age of 15 years. And there’s this law in Nigeria that you must serve government not more than 35 years. At 50 years I left.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 09:42
Wow. Being at the library was a place where you create your own world.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 09:47
Betty Kankam-Boadu 09:48
How did this place where you could create your own world impact your life going forward in the future?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 09:55
You see, when you’re growing up, even at any age, you can concentrate on the things you see. The things you see, you feel that is all there is. Or the things you feel you know that’s all there is. But the library taught me the possibility of different pathways of life. The library also made me more understanding of the different views of people. Because in Africa, maybe you’re born into a family and the family goes to a particular church. That’s all they know. And when you want to go out of it is like, “No, this is how it’s being done, our culture.” Or, “No, this is how it is done here.” But the library taught me that… I mean, there are so many people all over the world, and they believe in different things. That doesn’t make them different from me. Scratch the skin, it’s still the red blood under. Whatever is the colour of the skin, whatever, it made me realise that, look, the world is not restricted to my particular knowledge or perception or whatever, that there are other people that believe different things that do different things, and they’re all people. So I gained more tolerance.
Let me give you an example. There was one day somebody came to the library. Then it was after my second degree, and the person in Enugu, the person said that he’s looking for a particular book on witchcraft. Being an African, being a Nigeria, “Hey, witchcraft, or this one is a witch.” But I had learned that people will read sometimes just for academic exercise, sometimes just to learn something. Even if it’s to practice, how is it my business? I didn’t even know that book was there on the shelf, honestly I didn’t know. I helped him search, found it, and he was so happy that he found what he was searching for. Working in the library made me more understanding. I gained more understanding that there are different shades in the world. There are different shades, and is always wrong, or is always not the best to think that your own shade is the best in the world, because there are others there too. You don’t know how they started to learn what they started to learn, you don’t know why they are the way they are, but that they are that way and you don’t go condemning them because they are that way.
Also, the library made me to see that, you see, a woman can be anything. There’s this name that we say, this then in my language, Nwanyi bu ie, that a woman is something. It can also be a woman, it can also you know, it depends on the intonation, it can be one Nwanyi bu ife, Nwanyi bu ife. It’s the same spelling. You know that a woman is light and a woman is something. Because I read books by women, storybooks as a child, and I was like a woman wrote this, a girl wrote this. And sometimes when the characters are girls, it’s as if let me enter inside that book, it can help to push this girl. Don’t do this, go this way. It made me to realise that a woman can’t be silent. A woman also has the right to exist, to be all she wants to be.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 13:38
You read books, and it gave you this perspective that a woman can be anything she wants to be, a woman can be more than she is. Would you say that that was the prevailing circumstance there?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 13:52
No, it wasn’t. You see, culture, culture is strong. And there are definite pathways for women within different cultures. Now, in growing up, sure, women could aspire to be, but most women could not aspire to be. In my culture, women could aspire, but most women could not aspire to be all they wanted to be, because sometimes there were invisible barriers. Sometimes there were those things that kept women down, not because they wanted to. And they have to bend to those barriers, because that meant their existence. Remember when we were chatting the other day, I told you that I had plans that once I do my PhD, then I do my… once I do my masters, then I do my PhD.
And after my master’s, I went back to the library, because then they say that, then you couldn’t do your PhD without two years practical work. And the other place I could have done my PhD, then was up far in the north. My parents said, “You’re a girl, you’re a young girl? How can we leave you to go there, to go and do your PhD? who do you know there?” So that closed the door then. And then also, I got marriage, and my husband was like, “Sure, sure, sure. You can do it. Sure, you can do it.” He didn’t put any barrier. But the kids came, the kids came. I have five children, and four of them are medical doctors. And the last one is in his final year of medicine, too. You know, you have to… is it when you’re pregnant? Or is it when you’re breastfeeding? Or is it when you’re doing school runs, up and down, that you have to think of your PhD? No. So those are like invisible barriers. But it takes some focus, it takes some determination, some focus, really, to know that there’s a place I want to get to. Let me tie my wrapper well. I am going there. I will get there.
So that was why it took me so long. Because I had the first kid, the second kid and I had twins. It was like having four kids within four years. And yeah, the first one was two years older than the second one. The second one was two years older than the twins. Four kids in four years. You have to do a lot of things, help them do assignments, stuff like that. You couldn’t even think of yourself. And again, if you ask me to choose, I will always choose them. As I said, there are invisible barriers. And then I had the last one six years after the twins. It’s not as if women do not aspire, they do, but those barriers are there. And because we are all humans, along the way you could get tired, or you could lose focus, or you just don’t… I mean, what’s the big deal about all this? I mean, why go on with this? Because the year I finished my doctorate was the year I left government service, was the year I retired. And it was like, “What are you going to do with it?” But it was what I determined for myself a long time ago and I said, “You see that thing, I will get it. I will get there.” But it’s really better now because, once I left the government service, I got a job. Then I got another job. That’s this job I’m in now, man, it’s really more challenging than working in the library. This morning I registered for a workshop on decentralizing the web. Web 3.0. I don’t know what it is, but I’m going in, I’m going to learn it. By force, by fire. I’m going learn it because that’s one thing I’ve gotten from the library.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 18:18
You have five children now?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 18:20
Yes. Four boys and one girl.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 18:22
Some are doctors. And the last one is training to also be a doctor?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 18:27
Four are doctors. And I have a granddaughter, too.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 18:31
Congratulations, grandma. With your children, how important was it for you to cultivate this reading culture in them?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 18:47
Children learn from seeing what your parents do. And, in Africa most often, that it’s the woman that stays with the kids more. Right from my first child, I took all of them to the library and there were always books for them to read. And I made them realise that whatever your region, always know there’s a world out there, outside of what you think you know. I remember when they were in primary school, the headmistress called me one day. She was the Reverend Sister. She said, “Madame, I want to ask you something.” I said, “Now go on.” She said that any time that they organised quizzes in the school, or they take children outside for quizzes, that my children will answer questions that they never taught them. That they have knowledge that is not taught in school? How do they do it? I told her that they read.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 19:55
Does it ever bother you that none of your kids took your career path? Because there are some parents that would want their kids, at least one, to take the path that they took. Did that ever bother you?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 20:11
No, it doesn’t. Like I told you, my late father was a medical doctor. My junior sister is a medical doctor. My most senior brother is a medical doctor. And my husband is a professor of medicine. I’m a different person.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 20:31
Okay. What did your parents think about this difference?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 20:33
They had wanted me to read law because they said that I read plenty of books. I said, “No, I don’t want to read law. I want a place where I can expand. A library is the best place.” So they were not disappointed, because when some parents notice that this one is different, or that this one’s made her mind, or that this one has this determination that is uncommon, they let go and let the child and explore whatever the child wants to be. They were not disappointed, no.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 21:11
That’s great to know. How would you describe being a librarian in Nigeria, for instance? You hardly find people saying, “Oh, I want my child to be a librarian.” You hardly even find people who even love reading, say, “I want to be a librarian.” How is it like in Nigeria?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 21:31
Libraries hardly ever get the kind of attention they’re supposed to get and you don’t blame the kids for reading just for academic purposes. The library sector for long has been like a silent thing. Silent in the way that you just go to the library, if people come, you attend to them, they read books and so on. It’s in recent times that people have started identifying themselves as librarians, trying to make impact in the larger society. Because everybody needs information. Everybody needs that access to information, and that access to information can do or undo or create a gap that will be hard to get over in years down. When children go to school, and parents cannot afford all the textbooks, parents cannot afford to read books, or extra text, supplementary reading and stuff like that. And the library is not there for them. That gap begins to be created between the haves and have nots. And that’s what libraries have been trying to address, even in Nigeria. For people that listen, that if these textbooks are not available, or not affordable for you, get to the library, you will see such books or even if you don’t see, the child will see books that will still teach the same thing.
Then also, then with the digital age, people have access to internet, some people have access to computers, some people have access to skills, to get things on the internet. But still there are so many in Nigeria, in entire Africa that cannot afford the data for internet. Do not have the skills to navigate the internet well. Do not know where to source for opportunities online. And the library is always there to help them to do that. In some communities, the library may be the only place where you can get almost free or very cheap internet. And that’s what is tough. It’s tough to convince people, especially because that that divide is already there. The people that can afford feel that “how can you say people can’t afford this?” But it’s true. And now the people that can’t afford it, getting them to come to the library, when the library is not as equipped as it should be for them is, is an uphill task.
So that’s one of the things that AfLIA is pushing to let more and more privileged people or people in the higher classes understand that libraries cannot be ignored. And then you think that the community or the town or the country or the continent can get on, because everybody must be included in sustainable development. It’s not for rich few, it’s for everyone. No one should be left behind. And in doing that, you have to think of spaces where the people that are not privileged can also go and access information, can go and learn new skills, can go and use computers free of charge, can go and do whatever or learn or get access to learning.
Because libraries are mainly funded by governments, and governments are interested in institutions that generate revenue. Libraries do not do that. They’re also interested in, let’s say, things for the public good, we know roads, health and so on. Forgetting that when you forget to develop the minds of people that are not privileged, there will come a time when they’ll fall on your neck because they do not know the things you know. They don’t know the nicer things of life. You’re not educated. They don’t have skills to do this or that. And they keep on descending lower and lower into the lower class. And if there is no way to get them out, everybody will suffer eventually.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 25:46
Yeah, it will be a long road.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 25:47
Yeah, it is.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 25:48
But I think it can still be done. Most important thing is that it started. For people who may wonder, what is AfLIA, and what do you do?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 26:00
AfLIA came about because, there’s IFLA, International Federation of Library associations, that is the global body for librarians, library associations and stuff like that all over the world. But along the way, African librarians noticed that, you see, the things that apply in Netherlands are not the same things that apply in Ghana. The understanding of what a library is different in different climes. And then we’ve also been able to… we are building the capacity of African librarians and building them up into a network, so that librarians in Botswana can have access to what’s happening in Kenya, can have access to what their colleagues are doing in Cameroon. AfLIA has three official languages, English, French, and Portuguese, to ensure that we reach everyone. I can assure you that it’s not been easy at all. It’s not been easy because we are used to playing in our own turfs. And now we want to go across boundaries and across borders and work with others. But it’s growing.
And then we got a boost. at the initial stage from Global Libraries. Global Libraries is an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. They helped us with funding and we were able to run a Leadership Academy, we were able to train librarians in public and community libraries in… call it 20 countries or so.
So that’s what AfLIA has been doing. And then creating that consciousness amongst librarians that you can change the world, if you can put your mind to it. You can change your community, if you put your mind to it. You don’t have to stay just behind your desk and feel, “Oh, I’ve done the work for the day.” What happens when the library doors are closed? Are you still a librarian then? So those are the kind of things we’ve been doing.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 28:13
The mention of free knowledge brings me to the open movement, and your work with Wikipedia. We know Wikipedia is an open or free knowledge source on the internet. How are you merging these worlds to open up knowledge even more?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 28:30
Looking at Wikipedia, that marvellous global entity. And we don’t have a voice there? African librarians are not there? No! It’s not possible. So that was really what made us push into that, to ensure that the librarians in Africa understand what free knowledge is all about, and the role they have to play in ensuring that that free knowledge that is out there is real, relevant, accurate, according to what they know, at least about their communities, the people there and the stuff that they do. So that was the main push. Who tells your stories? Who’s going to tell me who I am? I have to tell you who I am, it’s not you. Every other thing you can say are just conjectures. So that was the way that we approached it.
And then the issue of free knowledge. The default setting of libraries is open, opening up knowledge for everyone. Open up knowledge for students there, so that is not just what is taught in classrooms, they can come to the library and explore more about what the lecturer said. So that open setting. We also found it in Wikipedia. There are treasures inside libraries. Treasures, I can assure you. When you go to national libraries that collect legal deposits, some books are there, collected, right inside there, and nobody knows about them. Maybe the author or the publisher doesn’t get to push them as much as he or she can. We are going to go into how do we make such collections visible? Through Wikisource, WikiBooks and stuff like that. We just started, let’s just say. We just started opening up knowledge. And identifying the Wikimedia Foundation is really a great, great thing for us to walk along with, to know that, yes! That this is an organisation with platforms that can that can work with libraries to open up knowledge more and more.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 30:54
So you visited a National Public Library. And I think among the many thoughts you had was African public libraries, taking a deeper look at how they can preserve their history, you know, through the library system. Can you elaborate on that? And why did that thoughts come to mind,
You visited the Nashville Public Library, and among the many thoughts you had was African public libraries taking a deeper look at how they can preserve their history through the library system. Can you elaborate on that? And why did those thoughts come to mind?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 31:16
Our visit to Nashville was because of the Leadership Academy of AfLIA, the one that’s founded by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Because after some training, we were now supposed to go and see what they do in other climes to add to what we already know. Because leaders should standout. Leaders should be those who dare to chart new ways, not just sit at your desk and say that you are a leader. We went there. And when we go there, first of all, we were introduced to all the big bosses, we had their programming, their services. And then they said, “Let’s visit the Civil Rights Room. I was like, “What civil rights room?”
And when we got into the Civil Rights Room, first of all, there were these descriptions on the doors about history, and so on, and so forth. And then we now sat down and they now said that this place we are sitting down is shaped like the counter of a bar or something like that. It is where so many things happened. And that was how they started. And there were pictures. They didn’t have so many books there. They didn’t have so many books, just a few books, but there were so many pictures, artefacts. Modern ones, so to speak. And they now went from one to one to tell us about the civil rights movement. So it turned out that everything there was a story on its own about what happened. And the library was collecting it. Newspapers were there, newspaper contents. Some headlines were framed. And there was one, I think is by this man that’s dead. Lewis, John Lews, I think.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 33:13
Yeah, John Lewis.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 33:15
Yeah. If not now, when? If not you, who? And I was like, “Wow!” This wasn’t a great quote he made when, let’s say, let me now make the motivational quote. No! It was maybe born out of circumstances of the things that were happening and he needed to encourage people. And then this library collected all of them. All of them! And we were all awestruck. Even the things that are happening now, where I am, is history tomorrow. Anything that happens today is history tomorrow. And that is the only way to build social justice, when people know that this is the path that we came along. These are the things that happened, because, sorry to say this, politicians in Africa get away with plenty of things because history is not known. History is not showcased, highlighted, so that people will know we’ve been along this path before. This is the history of this man that wants to be this or that. Will he change overnight? I mean, where was this man when all these things were happening? Was he a part of this? So we were all like, what is this now? What is this? I’d never thought of libraries in that way. We are good at collecting books, access to information and so on. But that aspect of social justice, that aspect of allowing history to have its own voice so that whenever you want to know where are we coming from, what caused this, what caused that? What are the indicators of, let’s say, social unrest? Stuff like that. They are all within the events of today. The good of the continent, the bad of the continent, are all within the events of today. And when tomorrow, people that come in do not understand the events of yesterday, they repeat the same mistakes over and over and over again, giving trust where trust should not be.
Then we were planning an expansion. And that one blew me off entirely. That expansion was, they said, they are still voices in the room that need to be heard. And, of course, it was all about women, because even in collecting history, you collect history of big events by men. But the women are there, doing maybe the things you call small, but those are people too in the struggle for a better life. For the family, for the community, the nation, their offices, everything. And their voices need to be heard, too.
So for every library, there should be really a corner where they tell history, they tell stories of history, especially in that of women. Because women are like the silent scaffolding that holds the building up. It’s like, you women, sit down there, you’re not a part of history. Who said? Libraries can address that. Libraries can address that and get the voices of the women who can speak and those that can’t speak.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 36:34
This is so interesting, how the library can preserve their community’s history for the new generation to also know where they’re coming from, and how to move forward. But we have a situation where in most African countries, libraries, particularly the community ones, are going to extinct. What do we do about this?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 36:55
A library can be underfunded. Most of them are. But the librarian or the library staff, you get your salary or you sit down and say there’s not enough money for this, there’s not enough money for that. There’s so many little things you can do to change the lives of people in the community. Let me tell you about one library in Uganda that I went to, Nagasaki Library. We went there, and when I got there, they called their Board of Trustees, and there was this fantastic looking old woman. If you see a funky wig, the wig was skew, it didn’t balance well. And inside the library, she put on these funky eyeglasses that I’m sure she wasn’t seeing through, white rimmed and so on. And she was there. She was well made up. She’s an old village woman. And the woman, I was also… they were saying so many things, but it was that woman I was looking at. After I asked them, “Please, who is this?” They said her name is Madame Ruda, she can’t speak English, but she’s on the board of the library. I asked them to translate for me and I asked her, Ma, how are you?” She says she’s fine. That this place is their place. That this place helps them. And I asked her, “How does the library help u?” She said, that they don’t hear what they’re saying in radio, that the library will interpret for them. Especially about the market prices of their farm produce. That the library will tell them, they will go there and ask them, if I want to sell cassava, banana, ugali, the one they use to make a ugali, if I want to sell it, which markets will I go to that is best for it now, now, now, and that the library will search and tell them that this market, they are selling a bunch for this, and this one they are selling a bunch for this. But again, consider the transport cost for this, for that, to that area, and that helps them know where to go.
Then also, she said that the library helps to tell them the weather today may not be good. How does the librarian do it? Word of mouth. You see? They made that woman, because she’s the community woman leader, they made her a member of the Management Committee of the library. She doesn’t read though, but because she’s a member, a strong member of the community. These are the things that we are telling libraries to do, librarians to do. Don’t depend on government all the time. The people you’re serving, serve them in the areas that they need service, they need information. It doesn’t all have to be big books all the time. It doesn’t all have to be shiny computers all the time. This is Africa, and we need to serve our people the things that they want. And then also they when they want to plant things like melon or so on, they tell them when the agricultural people will have seeds, and they can go there. Minor, minor things you might think, but that was what those people needed at the time. So that’s what we are telling libraries, serve your communities where they are. Don’t look for highfalutin ideas.
And that’s one of the ideas behind this, why we did this Wikipedia course. Collect the history of your community. Find out who are the notable people there that have not been written about in this big global platform. Walk with the people to know, and push them inside there. The people that can teach them skills on how to talk about their communities on Wikipedia too, so that it’s not just them coming to read our fine books all the time. Let the library also be a place where they go to tell their history.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 40:39
From what you were saying, I’m here thinking, then libraries add more than books. And the example in Uganda makes it so clear, the library can be this source of knowledge in a community and it can build up a community in ways that we can’t even imagine.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 40:59
Yeah, and the library is not also just for people that are that can read English or read French or Portuguese. That was one of the reasons why AfLIA has worked with African Storybook and Story Weaver. They have these open source platforms where you can go and translate storybooks into your local language. So that even if somebody is 70 years, 80 years, some people still enjoy reading, they can find… or people can read their own local languages, then they can find books there. Then also, we found out that many local languages are dying, in quotes. When I was translating some storybooks on Storyweaver I couldn’t find any word for “internet of things” in my language. I couldn’t find any word for robots, because we feel that learning should just be in this language we are speaking. How about languages that we are born in? Because it has been proven over and over again that children learn first in their mother tongue. If they’re learning, when they learn in their mother tongue, they keep it, they go to school, they learn English, they keep it, and then there won’t be a meeting of knowledge learnt in school to be applied locally. That’s why you see so many engineers in Africa. How many of us can produce computers? Because all those things are floating up in the air.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 42:43
There’s this obsession by parents to teach their children the English language over their local dialects. Here in Ghana, and I’m sure in Nigeria, as well, there are so many children who are in their teens, and they can’t speak any of the local dialects. And it just amazes me. It’s almost become like a trend.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 43:07
They feel that they have arrived. They have arrived. They are part of this elite. Excuse me to say this, that’s the colonial mentality, because when you think that you’re not enough in yourself, forgive me for going back down this path.
When Africa was colonised, Africa was not in any dark age. There were things going on in different parts of Africa. It’s possible that if we were allowed to go at our own pace, we would have been where we wanted to be. We’ve got to learn English, we’ve got to learn their culture, we’ve got to read their history, the Renaissance, Reformation, and all those the English things and so on. That does not mean that the one in Africa, it doesn’t exist. It does. It does. Sometimes, when you go through the proverbs of your people, you see the wisdom inside there. You can’t throw away who you are, because people said you are this or that. Who you are is who you are. Let people have their own definitions of you. But you have to learn to define yourself, who you are as a person, as a community, as a country, as a people. Let me not go into that.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 44:28
It’s so interesting listening to you and I’m so happy I’m just here nodding and I’m so excited. This is such an exciting conversation, by the way. So Nkem, for young librarians obviously the road is not easy, because I’m sure you didn’t have it easy, but what would you tell them to keep going and not give up?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 44:51
Well, the first one that I want to say is, own your profession. Own it. Don’t be shy about who you are. Like on Twitter, my Twitter handle is @librarianNkem And, if you don’t like it, that’s your business. That’s me. So own your profession. That’s number one. Then number two, the power of social media is great. Sometime, when I go to Twitter, I don’t comment, I don’t do anything, but I read what others are writing and I learn. And from there, I’m slowly building my own network of librarians and other people. Like this morning, I checked, I think I have up to 5500 followers that I don’t say much to. Young librarians should also explore the power of social media. You learn, if you want to learn not to do crazy things then you learn. And then also flow, learn and see what others are doing. Explore opportunities. But first of all, you have to own the profession. Own it. Don’t feel sorry for yourself, “Oh, I’m a librarian. There is no money, there is no…” No, own it. When you own it, then you can learn. You’ll be surprised that people will now flock to you to ask you, “What is that you’re doing?” Then explore the power of social media. As a librarian, you will be amazed at the opportunities that you see.
When I first came in contact with AfLIA, it was in Accra. I went for a conference. We were quite a lot of people that went there. But I believed in what I saw, in what I heard, and through the social media, I did a lot of things promoting AfLIA, talking about things and so on. And when this job, when the opportunity came up, I was called for an interview. I went through it and I got the job. Because you can’t hide your light under the bushel and expect the world to see it. You have to shine so that others will see and social media is really a good place to do such things. With focus again. Focus. Then, of course I’ll say belong to AfLIA. Find out what’s happening.
I can go on and on and on, but again, because I’m speaking from my own position of here, I may not be feeling the pinch of these young people. So that’s why I want to, because there are things you can you tell them to do, and they say, “We can’t even do it.” But social media, all of them are there. Go to Facebook, they are there making noise so they can use it to improve themselves.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 47:43
For somebody who’s lived the life through the years, and you’ve seen live from all angles. Growing up, at a young age, you even saw war and the effects of war. Being a librarian, reading books, dreaming and dreaming big, and where you are today, to the point that we consider your journey so inspiring that you are on this podcast, what would you tell the young people who are being sold an illusion on social media?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 48:14
First of all, there is no quick fix. Opportunities can come up. Sometimes, let’s say, God can surprise you, but there are no quick fixes. Everything in life is a process. The thing that is seen openly and applauded by so many was first worked on in the darkroom. And patience works. One aspires, whatever your goal is, whatever your dream is, please can you break it down into milestones, so that if by 20 you have a first degree that’s a big milestone. If by 20, whatever you have underwent, that’s a big milestone. So that you don’t think that everything can come in one day. Breaking it down, so that you live to enjoy it.
Then also know that social media, not everything there is true. Some are just what they call catfishing. Just like a bit to draw people out. Not everything is real. Some are from imagination because imaginations are everywhere. So, that’s my word.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 49:29
Yeah. And my final question is, what do you know now that you wished you had known early on?
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 49:39
I wish that I had known that life is never fair. It’s a wild, harsh world out there. That all is not love and goodness, because you meet some people, you come across people that will want to undermine you, want to sit on your head, want to do wrong things. So, don’t think that everybody is fair and all about love.
Betty Kankam-Boadu 50:10
Beautiful. Thank you so much Nkem. It was such a pleasure having this conversation and it was so eye opening to me personally.
Dr Nkem Osuigwe 50:18
Thank you. Have a lovely day. Bye
Betty Kankam-Boadu 50:21
Thank you Nkem. Continue to do the great work to ensure African libraries and librarians are fully actualized. Dr Nkem Osuigwe is the chair of the Public Library section of the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions.
Thank you for listening to Inspiring Open, a podcast series from Wiki Loves Women. This first series of Inspiring Open was funded through the International Relief Fund for organisations in culture and education 2021, an initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office, the Goethe Institute and other partners; and an annual grant from the Wikimedia Foundation. If you enjoyed today’s show, subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to your podcasts so you never miss an episode. Feel free to share, rate and review us. We appreciate the support. You can also tag us in your posts. We are @WikiLovesWomen on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I’ll leave you with the words of Ntozake Shange. “Sisterhood is important, because we are all we have to stand on. We have to stand near and by each other, pray for one another and share the joys and the difficulties that women face in the world today. If we don’t talk about it amongst ourselves, then we are made silent by the patriarchy. And that serves us no purpose. Until next time, look after yourselves and your sisters. And remember, be inspired, be challenged, be bold. I am Betty Kankam-Boadu and you’ve been listening to Wiki Loves Women, Inspiring Open.
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About Inspiring Open
Inspiring Open is a podcast series for women and men who wish to explore alternative paths and approaches. Every 2 weeks, host Betty Kankam-Boadu interviews a dynamic, successful woman who has pushed the boundaries of what it means to build community and succeed as part of a collective. You will hear their personal paths, what decisions were made, what has mattered to them, and why their ‘open’ approach has been an important part of that journey.
Join Inspiring Open as we raise the global visibility and profiles of women redefining and reclaiming the Open sector. Be inspired, be challenged, be bold!
Inspiring Open is a podcast series from Wiki Loves Woman – a project of Wiki in Africa. Feel free to get in touch with us for any thoughts, ideas, or feedback. It is available across multiple platforms under a free licence (CC BY SA). The series is free to access, and free to share, redistribute, reuse, and remix. Inspiring Open was funded through the International Relief Fund for Organisations in Culture and Education 2021, an initiative of the German Federal Foreign Office, the Goethe-Institut and other partners. And an annual grant from the Wikimedia Foundation.