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During the struggle for Kenyan independence, the Mau-Mau controlled over 50 newspapers and many printing presses, setting up libraries in liberated territories in forests and cities, writes Shiraz Durrani. It’s facts like these, he says, which are largely buried in an information system inherited from the colonial era, a system which fails to serve the majority of African people.

“Silence in the library”

Perhaps the best way to understand the contradictions facing libraries in Africa today is through a story. It is only when social contradictions are accepted and understood that attempts can be made to resolve them. And resolve them we must, if libraries and information are to play their part in creating a new Africa where there is justice, democracy and development for all. The story is “silence in the library”:

“Nyanjiru wakes up at 4 am; a water debe on her head, she walks for an hour and a half to the nearest stream. Then she climbs back from the river to her home, picking dry wood on the way for fire; she arrives home three hours later to start the day's other work: crying children to be calmed with bits of left over food, chicken to be fed and watered; then to start digging her half acre shamba in the hot, burning sun. This is the daily routine for a peasant.

And then there is Kamau. Kamau pats his dogs fondly as they surround his new Volvo. This is his daily ritual. He realises that the gates are not open yet and hoots loudly. Where is Mutua? Does he not know that today is the library board meeting and he has to report early? They are to discuss library regulations. He has prepared a long list of ‘don’ts’. As Mutua opens the gates, Kamau speeds out, the silent sound of the Volvo soothing his mind. He starts thinking about library rules. Yes, users must be controlled. Only last week he found a fellow eating mandazi in the library. How can that be allowed? Kamau had him thrown out. The first rule is going to be about eating in the library. And then of course ‘Silence: silence in the library’”.

In such an atmosphere works the modern librarian. Inside the stone walls of the library, in total peace and calm among the well preserved volumes, the liberian is oblivious to the ruin and chaos of hunger, starvation and mass exploitation outside.

The contrasting lives of Nyanjiru and Kamau can be found anywhere in Africa. Their activities are taking place within miles of each other and on the same day. Yet the two are so removed from each other that they may easily be on different planets or in different historical ages.

The library is a concrete structure inaccessible to Nyanjiru, and Nyanjiru as a library user is unacceptable to the librarians. For Nyanjiru there is no time to waste, no compromises to be made. All her labour and thoughts are to satisfy her family's basic needs: food, clothing and shelter. Anything that helps her in this work, she accepts with open arms and mind. Anything that prevents her from acquiring what she needs, she will fight. Her information needs are clear - she wants information which will help her to support and protect her family.

On the other hand is the library service - set up during colonial days, with a colonial vision, through ‘assistance’ from a colonial, neo-colonial ‘mother’ country. A mother whose very touch brings death. “Silence please; please, silence in the library”.

Silence, in spite of Nyanjiru’s dying children; silence, in spite of Nyanjiru’s twenty hour working day; silence, even though Nyanjiru's hard labour fails to fill her family’s stomachs. Nyanjiru knows no library. No library wants to know Nyanjiru.

The story of Nyanjiru and Kamau highlights the key need in Africa today: development – development of people, resources, industries, agriculture, art, culture… But “development” does not take place in a vacuum. In order to develop, people and societies need relevant information and knowledge in a number of fields such as science, history, geography, history, technology. Yet, under capitalism, information and knowledge and the very process of learning and education have become commodities to be bought and sold on the “open” market. Those without resources to purchase information end up having no access to it. The irony is that even those who produce information often have no access to that information which is taken from them, copyrighted, patented, repackaged, and sold at prices which the original producers cannot afford.

Thus peoples, countries and societies have been forced into “un-development” and inequality by the economic policies and practices of international finance and transnational corporations using the mechanisms of international financial and political control, such as the IMF, WTO and the UN.

But are these issues that should concern the library profession? Some say it is not our “business” to get involved in “politics” as we are professional people, not politicians. But if we accept that Africa needs a second war of liberation – economic liberation this time – then we need to accept that no liberation can be successful without appropriate information vision, strategy and tactics as well as trained information activists. This is the lesson from the major revolutions in the world. This is also the lesson from Africa’s long history of wars against colonialism and imperialism. And this is where we find a relevant social role for African librarians and information professionals and activists today.

The first requirement for liberation from an inequality imposed on Africa is access to information about the real reasons for poverty. Yet the information and communication systems created by the departing colonial powers were not expected or equipped to put this information before people. They were merely tools for a small, rich elite to impose its world outlook and culture on the poor and exploited majority of people. Post-independence systems and policies have made no fundamental change in this colonial-inspired information framework. We urgently need to seek a role for the information profession that is relevant to the needs of Africa in the 21st century.

An important task for Africa is to document fully the achievements, successes and failures of the anti-colonial struggles in Africa. Information about these can arm us for current and future struggles. This has not been fully documented. But if the history of African struggle for political and economic liberation is poorly documented, the struggle for African information liberation is even less well documented and understood.

It is not a matter of general knowledge, for example, that during the Mau Mau war of liberation in Kenya, the combatants controlled over 50 newspapers and many printing presses; they set up libraries in liberated territories in forests in cities, ran an efficient information collection system, and created their own distribution network, using “traditional” and modern methods available to them. This complex communications system was created and managed by activist librarians and information workers who were active not only in the information field, but in the larger political and social fields as well. Their experience, if fully documented, can help us find a relevant role for the information professional in Africa today.

And yet today, we tend to follow blindly the “Western” model of public library services which actively seeks to remove politics from information theories and practices. This model has not been successful in the “West” itself to provide information to all, particularly to those politely referred to as “socially excluded”. Yet we in Africa have not fully challenged this situation. It is only by subjecting our current policies and practices to a vigorous challenge that new and relevant theories, policies and practices can emerge.
Opportunities for information liberation

Just as in the political field, so in the information field, there are major developments when social contradictions are at their sharpest. It is at such key points in history that opportunities arise for making revolutionary changes in the way information and politics are organised. Colonial Africa has had a number of opportunities to change its societies for the better and serve the needs of the majority of people.

One such opportunity was in late nineteen fifties and early sixties which saw achievement of political independence in many countries. It was a time when foundations of the old colonial world were being destroyed and those of new free societies were being laid.

Many activists had the vision of a society where all would have free access to information and knowledge created by the work of all. It was a time of immense change and high hopes for a just, equitable future after decades of colonial oppression and exploitation. This was the time when people did influence events in a major way, underscoring what was said at the World Summit for Information Society (2003): it is “people who primarily form and shape societies, and information and communication societies are no exception”.

But the opportunity at independence to challenge the very basis of social organisations such as libraries was lost. Library services continued to function on the same basis as under colonialism, targeting their services to the elite, although now this included some more people and became “multiracial”. Class divisions, which formed the real divisions in the society, were deliberately played down, and racial, “tribal” and other “divisions” were brought into prominence. An information service operating in the real interest of people would have ensured that this “information blind-spot” was removed and the question of who the library actually serves would have been resolved in favour of the majority of working people. Thus an information service using resources from all but serving a few was developed. This situation has more or less continued until today.

But today, there is another possibility for change. Changes at a global level in the last 25 years now present Africa with another opportunity to make a fundamental shift in the way societies are organised – and in the way information services are organised. If managed correctly, we can make the transition to a people-orientated library service that did not take place at independence.

A key requirement for development of Africa is a redrawing of the “information map” to reassess our information work. We need to assess the relevance of the sources of information we provide to the people and to review whose point of view such information reflects. We need to look afresh at the form and content of information in our libraries and look at what languages they cover. We need to see if the information is targeted correctly and review how outcomes are monitored. Our information needs to reflect Africa in a new perspective and reinterpret its history from the point of view of African working people.

The world-view that people are daily presented by the Western media needs to be challenged for African people to see themselves as equal partners in a global context. An alternative vision and view of the world needs to be made available to every African. No people can develop under a situation of daily images of their own powerlessness and inadequacy, where facts about their exploitation are hidden and their suffering is shown as resulting from their own fault. In order to build our self-confidence we need to see the world from our own perspective in which the “other” is just that – the other.

Collection building

An important area that needs to be addressed urgently is the collection policy and practice of African libraries. Again, this is not the forum to go into this in detail, but the following needs to be addressed:

- Material from African liberation struggle. The enormous amount of oral and written material generated during the long history of African struggle against colonialism needs to be collected, documented and made available. Developments in information and communications technologies make this task easier than it was some years back. Part of this process is the need to get back from colonial countries the vast amount of African documents, material culture, and archives stored in London, Paris and other colonial capitals.

- Documents of the Pan African movement need to be included in the above, as do material on slavery whose effects Africa has not recovered from even today.

- Documentation on the policies and activities of organisations and leaders active in the anti-colonial, anti-imperialist movements (before and after independence) need to be made available through every public and University library in Africa. These should include organisations and leaders in every African country. For example, films on Lumumba and other anti-imperialist activists need to be collected or commissioned.

- African libraries seems to be flooded by material from a Western, imperialist point of view. There is a need to actively collect material from an alternative, people’s, point of view. This should include material on the World Social Forum (WSF) as well as on the people’s anti-globalisation movements.

- Material from a Pan-African and internationalist perspective. African libraries need to collect material from other African countries, organise a translation service to make material available to all, and promote major regional African languages throughout the continent (e.g. Kiswahili, Arabic, and Yoruba).

- Collections on social and economic development. Experiences on development in other parts of the world needs to be made available to African planners, teachers, lecturers, extension workers and others as a way of disseminating it to people. Thus experiences from China, Cuba, Venezuela and India should be actively collected.

* Shiraz Durrani is a Senior Lecturer, Information Management, Department of Applied Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University. He is the author of the book “Never be Silent: Publishing and imperialism in Kenya, 1884-1963”. Durrani formed the African Progressive Librarian and Information Activists’ Group (PALIAct), a partnership with a group of progressive African librarians and information workers. PALIAct seeks to develop people-oriented information services decided upon by workers, peasants, pastoralists, fisher people and other marganilised individuals and groups whose information needs have not been met. It involves working in partnership with other professionals and service providers.

* This article is a shortened version of a paper presented to the XVII Standing Conference Of Eastern, Central, & Southern African Library & Information Professionals (SCECSAL XVII), Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 10th- 14th July 2006 (http://www.tlatz.org/scecsal2006/) The full length paper is also to be published in Journal of Pan African Studies. Please send comments to or comment online at www.pambazuka.org