By Ignatius Banda
BULAWAYO, Zimbabwe, Mar 31, 2011 (IPS) - Across Zimbabwe, economic and political crisis has forced students to do without books, classroom furniture, teachers - the basics of a conducive learning environment. These learners cannot go to libraries, so the libraries have gone to them.
In recent years, Zimbabwe's rural schools have become notorious for their under-funding and dilapidation. For two decades, mobile libraries have formed a crucial part of encouraging a reading culture and promoting literacy in hard-to-reach places.
The donkey-drawn libraries have helped spur Zimbabwe's literacy levels according to Sylvester Nkomo, a headmaster stationed in Inyati, about 60 kilometers north-west of Bulawayo.
"It is something I could not have thought of starting, but since I have been here - for the past ten years - these mobile libraries have created something schools would not have managed alone," Nkomo told IPS.
"These libraries have tried to reverse what other people have in the past seen as a general lack of interest in books among rural students as many do not even go to school," he said.
Making the most of minimal resources
The Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme (RLRDP), a community-based non-governmental organisation, sources books with assistance from overseas partners, says librarian Thobani Gasela.
"The government stopped supplying schools with books a long time ago and one has to imagine what the situation in rural schools would be in the absence of these mobile libraries," Gasela added.
"Children have access to books right in the deepest rural areas and this has helped nurture a reading culture that is even difficult to encourage in urban schools, where children enjoy the advantage of reading under electric lights," says the librarian.
Following independence in 1980, Zimbabwe achieved an exponential rise in literacy levels as the new government invested heavily in education. The country boasts the highest literacy levels in Africa, in 2010 reaching 92 percent, according to the United Nations Development Programme.
This was an increase from 85 percent in 2000, despite the education sector taking a battering from the country's political and economic crisis.
Some of the credit is due to the donkey mobile libraries, which made their debut in 1990, and helped expand rural literacy and reach remote areas, cut off by bad roads and the unwillingness of qualified teachers to serve where basic amenities such as electricity and running water are lacking.
Tito Sibanda, a first-year student at Bulawayo's National University of Science and Technology, has fond memories of the mobile libraries.
"For many of us who grew up in rural areas, these libraries offered the only opportunity to access books as we could not go to Bulawayo city libraries," said Sibanda.
"I think they did help in that if you showed interest in reading, teachers encouraged you to broaden your reading. It was generally tough learning in a rural school but when you are at a stage like university people are not aware the rough road some of us have travelled."
Obadiah Moyo, the coordinator of the RLRDP, says donkey-drawn mobile carts and book delivery bicycles provide an extension outreach service in hard-to-reach areas.
"Children form the largest number of library users in the rural areas," Moyo says.
The mobile libraries offer more than just books these days, with solar panels on the roof of each cart.
"The donkey-drawn carts are also connected to renewable solar energy facilities fitted with television and radio receiver sets which facilitate the playing of educational videotapes, audio tapes and compact disks operated from the mobile carts," says Moyo.
According to the UK's Book Aid International, a lack of access to educational resources that seek to promote literacy in developing countries like Zimbabwe could mean the countries miss their Millennium Development Goals around meeting universal primary education.
Zimbabwe's Minister of Education and Culture, David Coltart, has announced a commitment to rehabilitate the country's rural school libraries; it remains a major challenge as Zimbabwe's essential social services remains largely under-funded.
For thousands of children scattered around poor rural schools, the donkey-drawn mobile libraries are a lifeline for learning.