Malawi Needs Libraries

Did you know the literacy rate there is 62 percent? Students in Malawi can go for years without having the opportunity to read a book. For comparison, the United States has a 99 percent literacy rate. This disparity often comes down to the prohibitive expense of books.

“In Malawi the book famine is so real, books are scarce,” said Gloria Matekenya, a Malawian librarian. 

It Takes A Network…

Enter Gloria, the African Library Project, the Wungwero Book Foundation (WBF), and Dr. Lisa Foo.

In 2019, ALP partnered with WBF, a small non-governmental organization based in Malawi, in order to find schools in need of libraries. When the headteacher at Mchedwa Primary School discovered this opportunity, he eagerly applied for the school to be included as one of ALP’s beneficiaries.

Across the world in Massachusetts, Lisa decided she wanted to volunteer for African Library Project. Soon, she was paired with Mchedwa Primary School to help create a sustainable library for students and community there.

In a letter to the Chane Foundation, another beneficiary of the M11 book drive container, Lisa explained some of the goals she had in curating the collection.

“One of my hopes for this library is to encourage understanding other cultures and learning to understand and embrace those of different backgrounds. I am also passionate about the importance of supporting girls to receive an education and of all individuals feeling empowered to make a difference in their world,” Lisa wrote.

In her book collection, she also wanted to include materials that focused on reproductive health, HIV and AIDS, environmental sustainability practices, and stories that featured black and African individuals, so the children reading them could see reflections of themselves.

To make that happen, Lisa leaned on her networks of friends and family to collect books and fundraise the money required to ship them. She called on her synagogue, her local library, her town’s e-newsletter, and they answered. Her two children, in Kindergarten and second grade at the time, even made a presentation to their elementary school.

Throughout the process, Lisa and her family were able to make lasting connections both at home and across hemispheres. 

“Sending the books was the start of a relationship, so by the time they actually arrived, it was seeing my friends getting a present.”

Special Delivery

“I was so happy to see the truck carrying our books. Words could not express how excited I was,” Gloria said. “As a librarian it has always been my wish that rural primary schools have access to reading materials.”

Now, the 2,110 students at Mchedwa Primary School have a library of 1,192 books. Students devote an hour a day to using the new space, and once they prove their responsibility, will eventually be able to check out books to take home.

Fostering Lifelong Learning 

To put it simply, having access to books makes teaching easier. Before the library, teachers at Mchedwa Primary had no supplemental materials to refer to for their lessons. Now, they can spend more time teaching and less time searching for those materials. The supplement to the curriculum also allows children to stay engaged at school for a longer period of time, giving more opportunities to engage with and learn from storybooks. 

An even more powerful result of the library, according to Gloria, is that it fosters a love for reading among the students, turning them into lifelong learners.

“Students could not hide their joy upon receiving these books,” said Gloria.

Mchedwa’s students have also been inspired by the true story of William Kamkwamba. The main character of The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a Malawian student who, thanks to his access to books at his local library, learned how to build a windmill in order to save his community from a famine. 

It was Lisa who made sure Mchedwa Primary could read The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind by emailing William personally, asking him to donate copies to the libraries she was collecting books to help create.

With access to this story and to similar ones, Gloria said the students have developed a love for science and technology in order to imitate William.

“Hopefully in the future we will have another Kamkwamba.”

Reading Is Fundamental

“The library will help develop the reading culture in the students which was absent before,” Gloria said.

Establishing that reading culture is essential to student success in Malawi. In order to matriculate from primary to secondary school, students are required to take national examinations in English. Gloria noted that these students in this transitionary period are most deeply impacted by their newfound access to books. The supplementary materials on science topics – materials they had never had the opportunity to use, much like William – widens their knowledge base. By developing stronger reading skills and habits, the students also have an easier time comprehending curriculum-based materials, which allows them to perform better on their exams.

Open To The Public

Mchedwa Primary School’s library is more than a space for students, though. The library will open up opportunities to support community projects, such as the building of solar ovens and water distillers, environmental sustainability, the empowerment of girls, and health talks about HIV and AIDS. Lisa went above and beyond to pack supplies and printouts for these along with the books she collected, including sewing patterns for washable sanitary pads so that girls on their menstrual cycles could continue attending classes.

The library will also foster opportunities for fundraising, supporting adult literacy, cultural development, as well as plain-and-simple weekend entertainment, which Gloria says is mostly unavailable in rural Malawi.

“The best part is getting knowledge for free, reaching places we have never seen and meeting people we can never get a chance to meet,” Gloria said.

Getting Involved

To anyone who wants to make a change or participate in a book drive, but isn’t sure how, Lisa, the stellar book drive organizer behind Mchedwa Primary’s new library, said to think about possible stressors that can be eliminated from your experience, whether that be time constraints, financial pressure, or any other issue. She also emphasized how the communities she is part of jumped at the chance to help with her book drive once they knew they could help.

“Don’t underestimate how much people want to make a difference if you make it easy for them,” Lisa said.

The best part of the whole experience, though? Realizing one person can make a huge difference.

“A normal person with an internet connection and space to store donations… that’s all I needed to create quite the ripples,” said Lisa. To start a book drive and find ways to support African Library Project, visit