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 Reading West Africa: Literacy and Libraries in Burkina Faso

Amid the high-tech wonders of the state-of-the-art Harrington Learning Commons, Sobrato Technology Center, and Orradre Library rests an exhibit celebrating the most basic components of the information age: books and reading.

Ensconced in the third floor gallery outside the Martin Reading Room and on view until June 11, “Reading West Africa” highlights the efforts of a group of students and faculty during a fall 2009 study abroad/immersion program in Burkina Faso, a combined effort of SCU and the nonprofit Friends of African Village Libraries (FAVL). During the program, the students studied digital photography, French (the official language of the country), as well as economic, political, and environmental aspects of Burkina Faso. Students also worked in village libraries and created children’s books in French.

The exhibit features some of those books, students’ narratives about this life-changing experience, native arts and crafts, and some of David Pace’s compelling photos of the country and its people. Pace, a lecturer in the Art and Art History Department, traveled with the students and taught them photography as part of the study abroad curriculum. 

“One of the things we wanted to highlight was the importance of libraries in people’s lives, especially in poorer countries,” says Deborah Whiteman, head of archives and special collections and one of the co-curators of the exhibit.

The libraries provide books, a scarce commodity in the country where the overall literacy rate is about 28.7 percent, and far less for women. “There is very little reading material over there, even in the schools,” explains social sciences librarian Helene Lafrance, the other co-curator. She was in Burkina Faso for six weeks this fall as an academic adviser, to help the students with their French, and to visit the libraries in the villages. “Many of the books [the students created] are about life or things related to Burkina Faso. The idea is to provide culturally relevant material for the children and new readers.”

The goal of FAVL, the nonprofit organization founded by Michael Kevane, associate professor and chair of the economics department, and Leslie Gray, associate professor and executive director of the Environment Studies Institute, is to establish and support small community libraries in rural Africa.

Learn more about the study abroad program in Burkina Faso.

Learn more about Friends of African Village Libraries.

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