With high illiteracy rates across Egypt, projects such as the Library Bus and the Café Libraries are designed to promote reading as a fun activity, a novel concept in a country where the education system focuses on rote learning.
Just outside the Egyptian coastal city of Alexandria, an oddly colourful bus is making its way down a dirt road. On its monthly visit to the underprivileged suburb of Kafr Ashry, the back seat of this mobile library bus is piled high with stools, tables, colours and, most of all, books.
Before, reading used to be a chore for them. Now, they read the books and come tell me all about the stories they’ve read. “The kids look forward to it every month,” says Haytham Shokry, programme coordinator of the Goethe-Institut Library Bus project, who spends more than half his month on the road, shuttling between different towns and villages with the massive book collection, trying to promote his love of reading. Through games, reading exercises and storytelling sessions, the project aims to engage students in reading outside of a school context, in a country where learning is associated with rote memorisation, secondary school dropout rates are over 30 per cent and more than a quarter of the adult population remains illiterate, according to official government statistics.
When the bus arrives in Kafr Ashry, around 80 children aged five to 11 line up patiently, waiting for it to open its doors.
“Before, reading used to be a chore for them. Now, they read the books and come tell me all about the stories they’ve read,” says Adel Hegy, a member of the local community who has taken on the management of these monthly visits. “It's totally separate from what they do in school.”
The 44-year-old Hegy, a blacksmith by trade, moves through the crowd like a maestro, pointing left and right, assigning the children to groups. In minutes, the crowd of excited kids has settled down into small huddles, each carefully looking through the storybooks they’ve been handed. The younger children are given puzzle blocks and colouring books. At the end of the session, the groups join one another for a storytelling performance.
In partnership with local initiatives, since 2013 this portable library has covered more than 50,000 kilometers, including over 60,000 children across 20 stations in its activities. As well as visiting villages and residential districts in marginalised areas, the Library Bus also works directly with schools, children’s hospitals, orphanages and other organisations serving the needs of children.
“It's not about quantity, though, it’s about the quality of the experience,” says Shokry, who personally designs and executes each session’s activities. When the project was first launched, a session with the bus, which typically runs for two to three hours, was limited to 30 children. But due to the overwhelming interest across all age groups, they removed the capacity limit. In some places, a session can attract up to 300 children. “We try to let the children’s interest curate the collection,” Shokry says, taking down a list of titles the children have requested.
Visiting the same locations regularly month after month also builds a network of trust and continuity. Mohammed Soliman, a 13-year-old who likes to read about science, now volunteers to help organise the sessions for the children, bringing his two younger brothers to the activities. Asmaa Salah, a 16-year-old studying at the police academy, also drops in to help out with the session.
“I used to come a lot over the past years and it’s really helped me develop my interests,” says Salah as she waves to a group of younger friends partaking in the session.
In Upper Egypt, the southernmost region of the country where literacy rates are the lowest, prominent NGO Misr El-Kheir has launched its version of the reading bus by adapting the concept of the Goethe-Institut. The idea is for the love of reading to spread around the community, and help form bonds within neighborhoods. As a result of the visits of the Library Bus to Kafr Ashry, Hegy now manages a small, makeshift community library of books donated by the reading project, targeting older readers (12 and above) who are particularly interested in novels and adventure stories, says Hegy, with history, art and general knowledge books also in demand.
As for the Library Bus, it’s not just the children who become interested in reading, says Shokry. “Their parents are also getting in on it, requesting books on good parenting and child psychology.”
Ultimately, even for children too young to read, participating just by listening can make a big difference to how they perceive reading and learning.
“The point is to get the children excited about reading,” says Shokry. “Hopefully it becomes a lifelong passion and they keep on doing it, even after the Library Bus leaves town.”
Coffee and Books
In Upper Egypt, the southernmost region of the country where literacy rates are the lowest, prominent NGO Misr El-Kheir has launched its version of the reading bus with the help of the Goethe-Institut. Meanwhile, another project has also been set up to combat the lack of infrastructure and easy access to books and knowledge. Café Libraries places fully stocked bookshelves into coffee shops, allowing both men and women, and especially young adults, to peruse books in their free time, as well as buy books for a reduced price.
Carried out by Goethe-Institut and partners including the NGO Alwanat, currently there are four Café Libraries – in Mallawi, Minya, Beni Suef and Fayoum. Since the end of 2014, almost 4,000 people have taken part in events hosted in the coffee shops, and more than 1,300 books have been sold. Events include readings, poetry slams, workshops, book signings and film screenings, mainly tailored to children, youth and young adults.
This content was produced by zenith staff for the Goethe-Institut. The Goethe-Institut’s Transformation Partnership projects are supported by the German Federal Foreign Office.