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In Senegal, Lone Library Struggles to Serve Growing City

In most West African countries fewer than half the population can read or write. But as one small library in one of the poorest urban communities in Senegal fills up over lunchtime, the director says the only thing he needs is more books. For VOA, Naomi Seck has more from Pikine, Senegal.

Pikine's only public library is a single, long room off a dusty courtyard.

Fourteen-year-old Fatima Ndoye gives a brief tour.

She points to a shelf and says there are novels. On the shelf below she says there are books about business. She says she comes here every day during her break at school.

She takes a book, and since she does not have the right to take it home, she reads a bit each day. Each week, she says, she starts a new book.

To get a library card to take books home, she would need to pay about two dollars and bring two identity photos. After coming here for more than three years, she still has not managed it.

Only a few people were in the library when she arrived. As lunchtime approaches, schoolbags pile near the front door and the desks and tables fill up. Yet the rooms remains nearly silent as the students concentrate on their reading.

Pikine is one of the fastest growing poor, urban neighborhoods in the world. It is home to nearly two million people.

Its only public library, says director Pape Baba Ndiaye, has 11,000 books. Glancing around the unfilled-shelves, the actual number seems far fewer.

Either way, Ndiaye says it is very insufficient.

He says most of the patrons are young students, who need African literature for their schoolwork. But he says they only have three or four such books, for hundreds of students to share.

The library has existed since the mid 1990s, but was not well organized.

When the current mayor of Pikine was elected in 2002, he pledged to renew the library. The revitalized library opened three years ago.

Fewer than 40 percent of Senegalese can read or write. Many development programs are working to increase the number of people with basic reading skills. But Ndiaye says it is just as important to facilitate access to good books and aim for a higher level of literacy.

He says libraries have the power to really improve the quality of education in Senegal.

He says he hopes to create a network of libraries in each of Pikine's 16 districts so that students will not have far so far to go.

But for now, there is just the one.

Ngon Niang, a young volunteer librarian who has worked here Monday through Friday since the library opened, says it is already a good start.

She says it will help the children and the students who are here in the periphery.