While Rwandans are rather proud of their culture, there is one aspect of it that is often quietly glossed over: the lack of a culture of reading.
Thankfully, things are changing in this respect. Just recently, for example, Mineduc launched the 'Rwanda Reads' campaign to encourage people to regularly pick up a book. Others, too, are doing their bit, sometimes with the use of modern technology.
Isaro Foundation is a non-profit organization founded by Jean-Léon Iragena, a student at Oklahoma Christian University and himself a writer. He created the foundation in October 2011 with the main goal of promoting reading and writing skills in Rwanda by collecting books in America and ship them to schools throughout the country.
They've so far shipped more than a thousand books but they quickly realized that the cost of shipping alone exceeds that of buying the books. That was absurd, they found, and they started looking for alternatives.
"I'm an engineer and I believe in technology," Ken Blackwell, chairman of the Foundation, told cheering students of Ecole Agri-Vétérinaire (EAV) Bigogwe in early July 2012 while inaugurating an electronic library (or e-Library) based on the Amazon Kindle, and e-book reader.
This is a pilot program and the first of its kind in Rwanda. "You see, I can even turn the pages, I can bookmark and anything you would with a paper book," Blackwell said while demonstrating how it works. He was holding a Kindle of the 1st generation, a device that can carry up to 300 books. On a single charge, the device's battery can last up to 2 months.
The e-Library is funded by Blackwell's church, Church of the Apostles in Connecticut, USA. His church has been with Bigogwe schools and involved them in various projects for seven years now. The e-Library is composed of 35 Kindles. "The main reason it was brought here is because I thought it was important to try something like this in a very remote school with the attitude that if it works here, it should normally work anywhere. We began with the hardest first," he explained.
If this succeeds, Kindles will then be spread throughout schools across the country.
It was important to try something like this in a very remote school - if it works here, it should normally work anywhere.
Those Kindles are currently preloaded by about 125 books each, totaling to 4,375 -- something very expensive if shipped physically. When Amazon preloaded them, Blackwell chose a series of textbooks varying in high school subjects as well as classic English literature.
For the curriculum, he's now working with the headmaster of the school to identify content specifically for the school. With Ken Blackwell being a close friend of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, as well as having a strong connection with the company's top corporate officials, there's no doubt additional curriculum-specific content will in the near future hit the shelves of the e-Library's Kindles.
Teachers have been already trained on how to use the e-Readers.
Teacher is key
Equipped with a high-contrast, most advanced E-Ink touchscreen that reads like "real paper", and with no glare, the Kindle is designed specifically for electronic reading. Kindle won't cause you eye strain as do backlit screens of the rest of other tablets such as Apple's iPad and Samsung's GalaxyTab. This screen that will enable students to read as easily in bright sunlight as in darker library corners.
"They will take it and read in group, enhance reading skills, enhance English skills, and do that with high-tech ways. We need to enhance the core reading skills independent of any particular technical subject. Teach the kids to read, and not only how to read -- but the love of reading," Blackwell said.
Augustin Ahimana, Bishop of Kivu Diocese where EAV Bigogwe is located, urged students to take care of the e-Library. "Isaro Foundation created a library of 10,500 books for you. So please take good care of it, make sure the devices stay in good conditions," he advised the students.
The move is also commended by the Minister of Education Dr. Vincent Biruta. For him, technology will play a big role in building a society that reads. In his office, he appreciated the project of the Bigogwe e-Library and added some advice: "The key to success of the project is the teacher. When a teacher does not have a reading culture, he will not encourage a student to read books from Kindles because he is not interested. To make this project a success, you have to highly involve the teachers."
Isaro Foundation isn't alone in this movement after all. Someone in the US Department of State is reportedly also advising some other projects to do the same and 600 Kindles are about to be installed in Kigali Public Library's system.
Rwanda will eventually read - whether on paper or on screen.