Entrepreneurship in the Arts, a model from the Uganda Children’s Library
“Television is our greatest competitor, we encourage our parents to deliberately apportion time for reading at home for children” – says Rosey Ssembatya, founder of the Uganda children’s mobile library.
By Nakitto Irene
There has been a long sang assertion that Ugandans don’t read. I say long because I have heard it since I joined the writing circles, way back in the early 2000s. However, there have also been many interventions to curb this statement and to dilute its worth; from the extensive efforts of women writers under their umbrella association Uganda Women Writers Association – Femrite, to the vigorous projects by Fountain Publishers. Fountain members even went on to birth their own initiatives to address the lack of reading culture in Uganda and increase on the pool and variety of Ugandan Literature.
One such initiative is the Children’s Mobile Library by Rosey Sssembatya, a member of Femrite and Babishai. It is the first of its kind in Uganda (I am pretty sure in East Africa too) and brings with it new ideas and approaches to reading and children. The Children’s Mobile Library is a unique arts innovation because; it focuses on children, their reading abilities, what they read, reading for fun, who reads for them. It also has a business niche to it. Tapping into a new young generation of readers, in a decade, we won’t have ‘Ugandans don’t read’ kind of phrases anymore.
But, these are all my assumptions.
I sat down the founder and brain behind this initiative to find out more about the mobile library. Rosey is a writer, teacher, accountant and most recently a mother of a happy baby girl. She divides her time between her school job, running the Children’s mobile Library, writing, reading and her family. She is also the author of a science puzzle book for Upper Primary.
Rosey you are a writer, why did you start a mobile library and not say, a bookshop?
“I have two lovely nieces whom I used to buy books for. However, they would finish reading the books so fast and repeat them over and over again. I would buy more books and still they would be done with them in no time. I wanted to build a reading culture in them but I was spending much. One day I sat down and thought; there must be several families out there going through this same situation. There must be aunties, uncles and friends experiencing the same challenge as I had. Books are expensive and yet children outgrow them fast. I thought, how about creating a library where kids can access the books they need, a variety of them to read throughout their holidays. I had a library in mind where children could read over 1000 titles if they wished and yet their parents would not have to spend a lot. That is how I started the Malaika Mobile Library to offer variety to the children and save parents, aunties, uncles and friends money and avoid wastage of resources.”
“I was also inspired by my love for reading and my mom’s love for stories. Our mother was a teacher and she would read to us every day. These were a variety but mostly in Luganda; newspapers, ‘Zinunula Omunaku’, a column in the local papers called ‘Munakibuga Omuk…’ Our mother always read to us in a very comical way, using voices, illustrations and we would jump into the world of the stories she told. As a teenager, I found myself falling in love with books and literature. I decided to transfer this love for books and reading, from my mother and me to my nieces. By then I had no child, so I spoilt my nieces away. Currently, I read to my baby.”
Rosey walks to another room and comes back with six titles of nice looking- bright covered books, with fur and other animal textures in them. She opens the book and tells me how she reads to her baby, the process and what to read at what months. She explains that while the baby cannot understand the words, she gets to feel the fur, texture, see the colors and will be able to recognize them later on. Her baby – whom I am now carrying – lights up and reaches her hand out when I open a page. It is bright yellow in color and has a real feather texture on them. “That’s her favorite page,” remarks her mother.
Okay. So you start a library but why did it have to be mobile. I mean, parents can drive the kids there?
“Life is fast, people are busy. I wanted to offer a service that fits that fast life. I have always wanted to sell an excellent service but also one that offers convenience. This is because convenience is the now and future. So if I wanted to grow a reading culture and give a variety of reading options to our children, I had to seek good titles and offer the choice of delivering them to their homes.”
How do you gain from the library and what are your objectives?
“We charge money for subscription and that is how we are able to cover our costs. Also, we get satisfaction from the fact that we are contributing to a lively childhood for children, not forgetting the fact that we are boasting the reading culture and carrying forward the ways we benefited from our parents story-telling.”
“When it comes to objectives our main aims are; to give children a great reading experience, to nurture a reading childhood and a reading culture of a generation to come.”
“I love children, and I love reading. I felt there was a gap which I needed to fill badly. It was a project for me to satisfy the need for children to read for recreation, pleasure and yet learn a thing or two. When you look at the books in most of our primary school libraries, majority of these books are academic materials, children read so that they answer comprehension questions at the back, or read for the exam. There was need for children to read without feeling this pressure. To read for fun.”
“We have over 2000 titles currently, of which 5% are Ugandan and 7% African. We also got book donations from Germany, Tanzania, Jamaica and others. You find that every month, a child is entitled to 12 different titles from our library, now there are 12 months in a year, imagine how many books a child would have read then. And how many by the time he or she is 12 years!”
Seeing that this is the first of its kind in Uganda, do you have any competition?
“Television!,” Rosey exclaims without hesitation. “Our biggest competition is television. It’s terrible. We always encourage our parents to deliberately apportion time for reading, because as long as children are children, play is their work. Interesting books are part of play and discovery. Children today are addicted to television and phones. If a child reads a book every day for 20 minutes, goes out to climb a tree, run around, make a kite, then that’s great. Instead of being glued to the television all day, we tell our parents to try an experiment and not pay television subscription for a month.”
Now that the library is operational, what do you consider your greatest successes? Do or did you experience any challenges?
“We considered ourselves blessed for we have a couple of milestones to show. Firstly, we have bought many books, we boost of a library of more than 2000 titles of a variety of children’s books. And we keep buying. Our clientele is growing by the day.”
“Secondly, parents send us reports of how the children have greatly improved in their reading, speech and performance through the help of the library books. Just last month two parents sent us reports showing that their children were the best in their school’s reading competitions. This makes us proud.”
“We have also had several reading tents at big events like My Kid is a Super Star, Kampala Kids Festival. We would go to an event or a slum area, raise a pop up tent, put pillows, carpets, books, lots of books and have children come in to read or be read to. Unfortunately we had to stop this activity at is was very expensive for us to organise. We also held early childhood teacher trainings in Literacy and Sounds and we are in the process of building a permanent library (our home) along Mityana road.”
“However, there are some challenges; the first one being that there are not may Ugandan children’s book writers so we have a few local titles. Yet we want our children to read Ugandan literature. Apart from Oscar Ranzo who has over 50 children’s titles, few Ugandans have written more than five children’s books.”
“The other challenge is that books are expensive to purchase, yet we cannot make the service expensive for our clients lest we lose them. Also some people who write forget that they are writing for children: often their books lack color or the words are small.”
“We are trying to solve these problems on our own by encouraging our writer friends to write. Like you Irene, you need to write books for children! We are also in a drive to publish our reader’s own books. Good readers make good writers and we are encouraging and nurturing them in writing.”
Do you think there is anything government can do to solve these challenges?
“Make reading compulsory especially in primary schools. Government can do this by choosing a school in an area to have books and a library and other schools around it can come and access those books, each school visiting on a different day of the week.”
“The government should also revise and construct community libraries and even put scouts in districts to ensure that the children are using these libraries and reading the books therein. Malaika mobile library can then come in and set up reading tents in the different community libraries. Government should take this seriously because Uganda has a young population and if children do not read they will fail English and other subjects as well. If the educational system is passing out students who can’t read, they can’t comprehend, they can’t think creatively, they can’t invent, they can’t start a business… Hence they won’t be able to solve the country’s problems! Is this the future we want? No of course not.”
Now do tell us about how the library started and the journey so far.
“The library was started in November 2016. I had been nursing the idea for many years but in November 2016, I woke up one day, went to Aristoc Bookshop and bought 15 books. After that, I called my friends and invited them to tea at my place, my plan was to tell them that I had started. Surprisingly, of the five friends, three of them came with their children. I told them all about the project and how I was going to run it. I got three children who signed up and I was with these for three months. That’s how I started.”
“It was 2017 – the project was three months old and running – I had three children signed up and every Friday, I would deliver three books to their parents’ office. The beginning was tough, I was not charging much yet the cost of packaging, buying staples, and delivery – I would deliver the books myself – was high. I was charging 100,000 per child per year. It was very tough for me for the first six months but I lingered on because I had promised the parents that I would deliver. Starting out, I had one boda driver for deliveries. After sorting the books we would take them or he would take them himself to deliver.”
“In May 2017, Oscar Ranzo (Uganda’s most know children’s book writer) mentioned and directed a friend to me. She came and interviewed me for Natural Science Journal and people got to know me more. After that, interview, I got 30 more children signing up and an American couple living and working in China brought for us 300 books. After that, the New Vision also interviewed me and I got 20 more children signing up. I was also featured in the Best 40 under 40 by New Vision in 2017.”
“These interviews were a great boast to the library. Before them, people did not know such a thing existed. The children increased in number and so did the costs, so at the start of 2018 we increased the subscription to 320,000. This is what I still charge but a client has an option of choosing six months whereby they pay 152,000 for six months.”
“We also chat with the children on WhatsApp, I write to them but I cannot take away the role of the parent. Children love to hear the voices of their parents, their parents voices are calming, soothing and make them bond so I always tell parents, “read to your child.”
We keep getting feedback and respond to the readers. For example, a child may say that the books are boring. I then write back and ask, “What do you want to read?”, and we try buy those books that they want. If many children like comics, then we buy Tintin. By now we know the writers children love most.”
What’s the future of the mobile?
“It is big. Technology is taking over. We hope to have a mobile library app where the children can select from our titles what they would like to read using the app. We hope to have over 100,000 children’s books stocked according to the different age groups. We hope to have finished our home on Mityana Road and reach out to as many families as possible and encourage parents to start mini libraries in their homes, so that children grow up around books. A child which grows up around books would want to touch them, open them and read them.”
I like the way you blended entrepreneurship with literature/Arts. How can other artists out there do the same and what’s your view on literature in the arts space in Uganda?
“I like the space literature occupies in Uganda today. By literature I mean books, plays, films, poetry. Literature is about life and the place of literature in society is in the front seat, not the back seat. The fact that the literature calendar in Uganda is busy all year.” round is testimony that it is trying to take its rightful place in this country as a social commentary. We have poetry performances, literature awards and prizes, we have the International Writers Conference, and many others. I am proud to note that I even have friends who live off literature which was not the case before.”