More than a library

After the genocide of 1994, Rotarians led a successful campaign to build Rwanda’s first public library. A bastion against ignorance and tyranny, it has become a gathering place where a culture of reading, the arts, and democracy thrives.

by Jina Moore Photography by Andrew Esiebo

Twenty-year-old Noella Umutoniwase and her friends have been hanging out at the library for as long as they can remember. They come to study in its quiet spaces, chill at its rooftop cafe, or chat with friends in the garden. In fact, if you ask her whether she remembers Kigali before there was a library, Umutoniwase scrunches up her face in disbelief. “Before there was a library?” she asks, as if evoking the dawn of time.

For her, it might as well be. The brainchild of Rotarians in Rwanda, the Kigali Public Library was born, at least as an idea, not long after Umutoniwase herself. Back then, the Rotarians who proposed it must have seemed crazy. Only six years before, more than 800,000 people had been killed in an event known today as the 1994 Genocide Against the Tutsi. Farms and businesses were destroyed, basic infrastructure was broken, Rwandans were traumatized. A public library must have seemed like a strange priority.

In the stacks, a patron reads a book titled Transforming Rwanda, one of the library’s 19,000 volumes and 30,000 digital titles.

But the members of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga, Rwanda’s first English-speaking club, thought the idea made sense. One of them was Beth Payne, an economic, commercial, and consular officer at the U.S. Embassy in Rwanda and a fan of libraries; she had put herself through law school partly by working at one. But it was more than a personal affection: “I had always believed that a free library is one of the cornerstones of America’s democracy,” she says. When the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga was chartered, in 2000, Rwanda was focused on its future — on ensuring peace and reconciliation, stability and security, and economic growth — and Payne believed it was the perfect time to think about how literacy and access to information could support those goals.

Payne taught a class about the internet to Rwandan businesspeople. “I watched how they responded to this wealth of knowledge and information all of a sudden becoming available to them,” she says. “So I suggested to our club that one of the ways to support stability and growth, even if it’s not as direct as other ways, is by having a place where people can come and get information and knowledge. And that captured people’s imaginations — although, I’ll be honest, I was thinking of something a lot smaller.”

Thinking small, however, wasn’t something that the country’s newest Rotary club wanted to do. Most of its members were Rwandans whose families had fled the country in 1959, in another episode of violence that many consider Rwanda’s first genocide. They had grown up on stories of Rwanda and dreams of return, and now that they had arrived, they had ambitious ideas and limitless energy.

Gerald Mpyisi, the charter president of the Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga and a key figure in the library’s founding, was one of those people. He had grown up in Zimbabwe, gone to college in Uganda, and worked in Kenya, where he had loved the McMillan Library — Nairobi’s oldest — a neoclassical edifice filled with literary treasures. He drew on the inspiration he had felt while wandering its stacks to galvanize his fellow club members. “Those of us who had lived outside knew the importance of libraries,” Mpyisi says. “I said, ‘Guys, let’s think big. There’s no public library in this country. Does anyone here know a country without a library?’”

“You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t. A library needs peace.”

Building a library was a daunting undertaking. But the club was new, energetic, and ambitious, and the members felt buoyed by the scale of the project. “Everyone was in unison; everyone thought it was a great idea, even though we didn’t have the means. But if you don’t dream big, nothing becomes a reality,” says Cally Alles, a member of the Rotary Club of Colombo, Sri Lanka, who lived in Rwanda for more than two decades and is now that country’s honorary consul in Sri Lanka. As a member of the French-speaking Rotary Club of Kigali, Alles helped start the English-speaking Kigali-Virunga club to channel the energy of the country’s earliest returnees, many of whom had grown up in Anglophone countries. The club received a $2,000 Matching Grant from The Rotary Foundation for a computer and other items and decided to raise the construction funds itself, tapping support from then-U.S. Ambassador George McDade Staples, himself a member of the Kigali-Virunga club, and the country’s president, Paul Kagame, who was the guest of honor at the club’s first fundraiser in November 2000. In one night, the club brought in $250,000 in cash and pledges, about 20 percent of the project’s total budget, Mpyisi says. “That boosted our morale,” he says.

Rotarians carried the message abroad, and soon they and their friends were donating hundreds of books to the future library. The club began hosting monthly used book sales of duplicate or unneeded volumes, putting the proceeds toward the costs of construction. At the time, books in Rwanda were difficult to find, and prices were far beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, so the club’s sales became hugely popular. Virtually all the books on offer would find homes, but some were more sought after than others. “This was when Americans were all getting rid of their encyclopedias,” Payne recalls. “Imagine, in Rwanda back then, seeing a whole set of encyclopedias, and you could buy it for $5. People ate those encyclopedia sets up.”

At one early book sale, President Kagame and his family showed up unannounced. His children picked out several books — and, Mpyisi remembers with a laugh, their father insisted on a receipt.

In fact, Kagame was a key figure in the library’s evolution. In his personal capacity, he was among its first donors. Later, when the global economic crisis stalled the club’s fundraising and slowed the library’s construction, the president stepped in to help keep things moving, according to Paul Masterjerb, a member of the Kigali-Virunga club and the current chair of its library committee. In 2009, Masterjerb says, Kagame donated $500,000 personally and asked the country’s ministers of finance, infrastructure, education, and culture to make a plan and allocate funds to finish building the structure.

In 2012, the library opened its doors. It is managed as a public-private partnership between the Ministry of Education and Innovation Group, a local company that offers online and offline creative platforms to communities. The partnership is overseen by a board that includes representatives from the offices of the president and the prime minister, as well as the Imbuto Foundation, a private foundation of first lady Jeannette Kagame that promotes literacy and other programs. The Rotary Club of Kigali-Virunga also has a seat on the board, held by the club’s library committee chair. Masterjerb says this form of partnership ironed out some early wrinkles in the library’s day-to-day functioning. Now, he says, it’s “perfect.”