A long-standing complaint among publishers in Rwanda is that the country lacks a culture of reading. While that might be an over-generalization, it is certainly true that it is not very difficult to find people who would rather fight a lion than read a book.
Alex, a student at the School of Finance and Banking says he only reads when he has sit exams. When asked about reading material not connected to his school work, he looks horrified. "Are you serious? I have better things to do."
Eric Habimana, on the other hand, is a bookworm. He reads anything that is interesting in both English and Kinyarwanda. "I copied this from friends at school who came from Uganda and Kenya. When I saw them reading, I decided to copy the habit," he says, adding that he thinks many people don't read because there are very few books.
In addition, the little reading material available is mainly in French and English, while a big part of the population is familiar only with Kinyarwanda.
Devote Kayitesi, in charge of the Children's Library Service at the recently opened Rwanda Public Library, says they are making efforts to ensure that they cater for the group that can read and write Kinyarwanda. "All we want to see is that people develop a habit of reading, it doesn't matter what language," she explains. "Most of the books we have stocked in the library were donated to us, that is why they are in French and English."
Apart from school libraries, the Rwanda Public Library was the first general public library to be opened in the country. Moreover, several initiatives have been launched in a bid to promote the reading culture. But can they redeem the very poor reading culture of Rwandans?
"Yes, I think it will be redeemed," Kayitesi says firmly. "What I see is a miracle. When the library had just opened, there would only be two or three people who would visit us, not to read but to see what is here. But now, many people come and stay for hours."
She says she is not sure whether these people actually read or just come to relax. However, one thing she is sure of is that just coming to library is a step ahead. Recognizing the presence of the building shows that one day they will come to read.
At the library, people are very silent. Some look up whenever someone enters. The kids' section is packed and all one can hear is paper flapping. Many don't seem to read the books they pick from the shelves, but only look at the pictures and keep piling the books up at the tables.
Kayitesi says there are so many kids because they are in the holidays, and some parents just dump their kids in the morning and pick them in the evening. This makes reading seem like a punishment, which will certainly not help in making the children enjoy reading. "We talk to some of the parents and tell them the importance of reading," she says. "Some parents are very ignorant about what goes on in the library."
According to Kayitesi, the best strategy is to start with the youngest kids. To see to this, they even have a program where parents can read for their young ones.
For example, seven-year-old Trisha has made headway in terms of reading. She has just finished her first book, The Beauty and the Beast that she started reading at the public library because her school has no library. And Kezah Karugira, of the same age, is an inspiration to other children in terms of reading. She started reading at a tender age while at school, she loves it and remembers all the stories she has read. She says her favorite book is one called The Mystery of a Secret Man. "I love reading because it's fun and makes you know more things."
"I think the focus on improving the quality of education, and particularly at the early grades, is smart and the way to go," says Yasin Said, chief of party at the Education Development Center. Like Kayitesi, he believes that the libraries, coupled with reading programs, will have an impact.
Kayitesi argues that for a child to pick interest in reading, their home and school background plays an important role. However, Said points out that the ministry of education is making sure that the schools focus on quality, instead of just building schools.
"Improving quality will take time but the system is going in the right direction," Said says. "So I am really impressed with what is going on."