Reading, dreaming, learning

Building Nakivale refugee settlement’s first library


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When Jim Wolford first visited Nakivale Refugee Settlement in Uganda, he realized he had a lot to learn. As the CEO of Atomic Data, based in Minneapolis, he had an itch to do something to support Alight and he also had a lot of ideas. But when he was actually walking down Nakivale’s roads and chatting with the residents there, a light bulb went off—maybe his ideas weren’t supposed to be front and center. Maybe the people there had a lot to teach him about what was and wasn’t needed.

“When you hear the word refugee,” said Jim, “you think they’re here for a short period of time, that they’ll return home. But I learned that many people will never go back home. These settlements become their community. And once I learned that, I thought about the children there. I wanted to give them the same opportunities as my kids.”

One of those opportunities was reading. Jim and his wife, Amy, had learned the power of reading from their own children, Atticus and Phinneaus. They’re both avid readers. And having access to books, to escape imaginatively into other worlds, has made a great impact on their lives.

“It has so much to do with dreaming and development,” said Jim. “With books, there’s an opportunity to leave troubles behind and go to a different space.” What if, he thought, he could help refugee kids in Nakivale get access to those same dreams?

After a few years of inspiration, making mistakes, learning, growing, and learning again, the result was the Nakivale Library — a system designed for, and with, the community it serves. But it was a journey to get there.

Building a library in Nakivale refugee settlement

After that first visit and spending some time reflecting back home, Jim’s dream grew into a plan for a library in Nakivale. Despite being home to over 100,000 people, Nakivale didn’t have any type of public access to books, which stifled growing opportunities and even the opportunity to simply curl up with a good book on a Sunday afternoon. So, Jim got to work.

He gathered an international team of experts and co-creators to design a library structure that would stand out as a beacon of learning in Nakivale, something that would signal opportunity and hope. But along the way, Jim admits, some mistakes were made. The structure needed some expensive and unforeseen adjustments, and things weren’t turning out quite right.

“At some point we sent a bunch of books to Nakivale, and when I visited next time all the books were still in their boxes. I realized they were in the wrong languages,” he said. “And I realized that we had skipped some steps. We needed to go back to the community.

Co-creation was key. And so was the collaboration of Alight Uganda’s Ambrose Kanyaryeru, who manages all Alight operations in Uganda, and who came on board to help Jim and his team make the Nakivale Library the very best it could be. Together, they approached the community to truly understand how they wanted to shape the library, how they would interact with it, and what components were most important to them.

“The people of Nakivale needed to be equal stakeholders in the vision we are building,” said Jim. “That’s at the very core.”

One way Jim and Ambrose approached this deep listening and learning stage was through doing the doable, using Alight’s Changemakers 365 program to come up with small-scale ideas for how the Nakivale community might interact with the library, what they might need, and how to bring these ideas to life.

The Nakivale library in action

Soon, the Nakivale Library became not only a structure that held books, but a space for community gathering; for writers, for readers, and for children and adults alike. There was a children’s library built next door to the main library, since we learned from the adults that often the kids were getting a little too loud in the library itself. There’s also an artists’ corner and a book club for writers. Currently, a writing contest and childcare opportunities are underway.

“It just keeps growing,” said Jim. “We keep fueling their imagination with the funds to do things. People there are taking the lead in developing it, making it theirs. We’re listening and letting it be about the love of learning and storytelling. They will take it and run with it. The vision is theirs, it shouldn’t be mine.”

Today, thousands of people are using the library. With close to 35,000 users, and half of them children, the library has turned out to be a critical space in the settlement—especially during COVID. Since the library is a big and open structure, it’s allowed the Alight team to have people safely visit while still maintaining key prevention protocols. It’s remained a place of gathering during a time when those opportunities have become so few.

Looking toward the future

Jim, the Alight team, and the people of Nakivale have big dreams for the future of the library in Nakivale and beyond. No longer “just” a library, the system put into place is now being regarded as the Nakivale Community Library Network (NCLN), since its reach expands further than simply the structure itself. It’s acting as a referral system of sorts, especially when it comes to developing programs to support protection and education programming.

The team also wants to ensure that the library can live on no matter what, as its own entity and organization. They’re working on registering it as a nonprofit, building a website, and going independent. Jim and Ambrose also have dreams of opening more libraries and community centers across East Africa and beyond.

“We want to replicate this so that every person Alight serves will have this as an outlet,” says Jim. “But it will look different everywhere, every community will build what they need.”

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