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  • Writer's pictureSoma International

Undergraduate’s Tanzanian Library Project Gains Momentum

A Virginia Tech undergraduate’s quest to bring literacy to his hometown.

*This article is a repost from Virginia Tech News — September 11, 2013

When he visited his home in Tanzania this summer, Virginia Tech student Mohamed Mwinyi received a hero’s welcome. He was greeted by more than 400 students who cheered as he shared his vision for establishing a library in their village.

“It was amazing,” said Mwinyi of Tanzania, a senior majoring in geographic information systems in the College of Natural Resources and Environment. “I never thought the idea would be received like this.”

During his visit, Mwinyi talked with the students about their goals and what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Fisherman, footballer, engineer, pilot, soldier ― I told them that whatever they wanted to be, they had to study hard and get a good education,” he said.

Mwinyi came to the United States from Boko, a small village outside of Dar-es-salaam in Tanzania. He said the most striking cultural difference he encountered was unlimited access to books.

In his home town, there is no “maktaba,” a word which means library in Swahili. The nearest one is an expensive, complicated, all-day bus trip away. Even if students can get to a library, access to the books is limited.

“I asked the students in Boko if they knew ‘maktaba.’ They knew the definition, but had never seen a library. Some asked if they would be charged a fee,” said Mwinyi.

Mwinyi has been working on the library project for two years, collecting books, raising awareness and funds, and planning the physical location. Mwinyi’s realization of his home town’s need for a library coincided with finding people at Virginia Tech who were willing to help.

Through University Distinguished Professor Scott Geller and his wife Joanne, Mwinyi became involved in Actively Caring for People. He talked to one of Geller’s classes, connected with volunteers, spoke to university groups, and generated more than 8,000 donated books on all subjects, which he will ship to Boko.

“All types of books are needed,” he said. “Chemistry, math, and biology books are very useful, because they are the same in any language.”

He envisions a library that will be used both by students and their teachers. “It will be for anyone who wants to expand their horizons,” he said, including teachers working towards their bachelor’s degrees.

Now fundraising and gaining support through various community and university groups, Mwinyi is designing a website for the library project and working on an independent study of spatial analysis for the library building. During his trip to Boko, he met with government officials who were enthusiastic about the project. He now has the promise of a small room that will house the books. Teachers have volunteered to organize and secure the books, and Mwinyi is working out the details of a check-out system. “There will not be space to study, just to lend the books. But it is a start,” he said.

When he graduates, Mwinyi says he would like to return to Tanzania to help his country and other African countries use the continent’s abundant natural resources to strengthen economic conditions and the lives of those who live there.

“The world has become a village where people can communicate in seconds. It is a non-static object. It moves and changes and you have to change, too.” He would also like to teach, so that he can, “make more opportunities, contribute a different perspective, and help promising students.”

Mwinyi recently received an Aspire! Award for embracing the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve), as a way of life. In presenting the award, Vice President for Student Affairs Patty Perillo cited Mwinyi’s “caring nature, his ability to recognize a need and the courage to address it head-on, and his willingness to learn, grow, and contribute all he can.” Mwinyi will be featured on the Outreach and International Affairs website throughout September.

Mwinyi said that through his experiences he has learned that knowledge, wisdom, and community are inextricably linked. “The three together complete the purpose of giving and making a difference,” he said. “If you lift other people, you lift yourself twice as much.”

Blair McGee of Virginia Beach, Va., a senior majoring in communication in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, contributed to this article.

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