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.
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.
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.”
“We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”
The Kigali Public Library has taken its place as a major institution in the now-bustling capital. On any given afternoon, the reading tables in the “study zone” are full of people in deep concentration, many of them secondary school or university students.
“The library came at the right time,” says Jenipher Ingabire, the Kigali-Virunga club’s current president. “We didn’t have places you could sit down and read. During summer holidays, when my three children are at home, I take them to the library. We borrow books; sometimes we sit there and read together. For adults, I see it as an opportunity, as a good place for us as Rwandans. As a club, we are really proud to have built that place, for having come up with an idea that not everybody would have thought of at the time as a priority.”
There are also older patrons for whom the library is part of a daily routine. Aime Byimana, 62, is one of them. He wants to start his own firm, and nearly every day for the past year, he has spent a few hours reading textbooks about information systems, corporate management, and business strategy. He finds the library, free and open to all, a hopeful and exciting place — and a reminder of how far Rwanda has come. “You cannot learn when you’re in trouble. Psychologically, you just can’t,” he says. “A library needs peace.”
Byimana doesn’t have the money for the membership fee of 12,000 Rwandan francs, or about $13, that is required to check books out of the library. But many patrons say they prefer to leave the books on the shelves — and hold on to an excuse to get out of the house and come to the library, where they can peruse the more than 19,000 volumes that are housed on three floors (the library also has 30,000 digital titles in its collection). Byimana spends his days upstairs in the study zone; that floor also holds a collection of French books and a corner that’s home to the Institut Français. The ground floor, or “interactive zone,” has a large, colorful children’s room, an internet cafe, and the Korea Corner, a kind of self-guided language and culture lab. The basement is the “collaboration zone,” with a large conference room and smaller meeting rooms.
That is where Joseph Kalisa, current president of the Rotaract Club of KIE, coordinated the team that planned a national trauma symposium in February 2019 that brought together mental health practitioners, social workers, and community leaders. The symposium, the first of its kind in Rwanda, was one of the events held in 2019 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide, and Kalisa says the library was a key force in making the symposium possible. “The planning team chose the Kigali Public Library for its neutrality,” he says. “We were 15 or 20 people from different organizations and NGOs, and we felt it was important to work from a neutral space where no one would be seen to be taking the lead. We all felt most comfortable at the library because it’s a public place suitable for equal discussion between equal parties.”
A thriving culture of arts and literature has also blossomed here. Huza Press, the first independent publisher in Rwanda, got its start in a library conference room in 2015. For several years, Huza Press offered a literary prize to encourage Rwandans to write their own stories and to identify emerging talent. Last year, on the library’s rooftop exhibition and events space, the publisher launched RadioBook Rwanda, a three-part audiovisual chapbook series of new fables written in the tradition of Rwanda’s old tales, the kind that Huza founder Louise Umutoni grew up listening to her parents read at bedtime. “The library is a space that’s been created as a celebration of books, as a celebration of storytelling, as a celebration of literature,” says Umutoni, who grew up in Uganda. “We’ve worked hard to reinforce that and to use the space that celebrates what we do as a publisher.”
“The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder.”
Solange Impanoyimana feels the same loyalty, born of the same appreciation. She’s a co-founder of Generation Rise, a local nongovernmental organization that uses literature as the foundation of a leadership curriculum that teaches girls in secondary school self-expression, confidence, and creativity through discussions, debates, and journaling about books. “The library promotes the culture of reading and helps people understand that reading is important, especially in the lives of young people,” Impanoyimana says. “When young people have access to books, they are exposed to different opinions, different stories, different places. They train their minds to imagine new things or to be creative, not to find themselves locked in one place. The more they read, the more they can believe in different possibilities, not just what they have seen in their families.”
Creating “a culture of reading” is precisely what Paul Masterjerb and his fellow Rotarians had in mind nearly 20 years ago. Though the young generation that fills the library’s corridors today doesn’t think in these terms, its elders believe that literacy is one of the most powerful tools to help fight the divisions that led to so much tragedy in the past. “The Rotarians thought that we need to boost a reading culture in our society so that the people can know more about what has been written historically in the world, and then they won’t be pulled so much toward committing genocide,” Masterjerb says.
Mpyisi, who chaired the club’s library committee for six years, says that preventing another genocide was “at the core of our thinking” from the start. “You know, it was easy for simple-minded people to be influenced by bad government. The reason why people were so quick to kill their own people was because the majority of the people in the country were illiterate. For them, any word that comes from the government at any level, that is the gospel truth,” he says. “The regimes that were here knew that the best way to rule over people was to keep them ignorant. If you have a library accessible to everyone, it’s much harder to keep people ignorant.”
For Nancy Wanny Mpadu, a 24-year-old medical student at the University of Rwanda, the tranquility that the library nurtures and protects for those who spend time there is like sunlight or oxygen — part of the invisible fabric of everyday Rwanda. She was born after the genocide, and heavy words like “reconciliation” and “stability” don’t weigh on her the way they do on the generation before her. For Mpadu, another value stands out: equality. When she first walked past the library a year or so ago, she didn’t know what it was or how it worked. “They told me the place is free for anyone to use,” she says. “And I feel good seeing so many people here. I even see my senior colleagues here, senior doctors. It’s a place any person, big or small, can come and mix with anyone else — a place that’s equal for everybody.”
• Jina Moore, formerly the East Africa bureau chief for the New York Times, has been reporting from Africa for 15 years.
• This story originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.