Dublin Teens Help to Build Library in Zambia

Combined Shape Created with Sketch.
The Icitabo Project team on the 2018 Speak Out Tour with their YSI Guide Wissam Abdel Samad
The Icitabo Project is a 2018 Young Social Innovators team from St Fintan's High School, Sutton, Co. Dublin. As part of their project they aimed to create and stock a library in Kabwe, Zambia. Below is an account of their journey from an idea thought up at the back of their North Dublin classroom all the way to a school in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Written by Patrick Watts and Frank Wolfe, Kabwe, Zambia, 2019

We always knew that The Icitabo Project was an ambitious idea – especially considering its humble beginnings as a Transition Year Young Social Innovators project dreamt up by a group of 16-year-old Irish boys.

The aim of The Icitabo Project was to provide a free library and Bemba language books (translated by us) for some of the most disadvantaged children in Africa; the children of Kabwe, Zambia. These children are currently attending a free school called Sables Nua, which is run by the Irish charity ZAMDA that takes these children off the streets and provides them with an excellent education.

The aim of our project was to provide a free library, stocked with books we translated for some of the most disadvantaged children in Africa

As I am writing this, 15 students from St Fintan’s High School, Sutton, Co. Dublin (including members from The Icitabo Project) are currently in Kabwe visiting Sables Nua and helping with the construction of a secondary school for those graduating out of Sables. We were selected last year by means of an interview process, and although we had all been excitedly looking forward to seeing how far our project has come, nothing could have prepared us for what we saw.

Our fundraising efforts, which included funds secured through the YSI Den, to support the provision of a library went much further and allowed those on the ground in Kabwe to create a fabulous new resource as well as new opportunities for the children at the school. They didn’t just fit out a spare room; they constructed a brand new building in its entirety. This building now provides the library/computer room, a Judo training room and a new classroom.

Our Work in Sables Nua

We were not entirely sure what to expect when we arrived. We knew the library was built, the shelves were up and the books had arrived. But it wasn’t until we got to Sables Nua that we understood how much work still had to be done to transform the room into a functioning library for the children.

The Icitabo Project team with the children from Sables Nua in the new library

While I type, I am surrounded by mountains of books, all being carefully sorted and screened according to their level of reading difficulty and how appropriate they are for the children. We have created a system which we dubbed the ‘Reading Rainbow’ to organise the books into 6 levels by order of difficulty, with each level being a colour of the rainbow going from purple up to red. We put a coloured sticker on the spine of each book to show where it belongs on the scale. We hope that this will enable every level of reader to easily find a book suitable for their literacy skills, and that they will progress through them as time goes on.

While I type, I am surrounded by mountains of books, all being carefully sorted and screened according to their level of reading difficulty

We have been busy decorating the library, transforming the room into a colourful and friendly place where the children can feel at home. The walls of the library have been brought to life with murals in Bemba welcoming children to the library, and explaining the ‘Reading Rainbow’ to everyone who wants to borrow a book. 

Our Ideas for the Future

While here in Kabwe, we have identified an important issue with the library that we are now keen to address. 

While sorting through the array of books, we realised that almost all of them were not only in English, but were set in England or the USA. Few of them featured characters or stories that the children here could authentically relate to. 

Being in Zambia has taught us that the future of any project like this should not only be in providing books, but in making sure that as many books as possible are in their native language, featuring relatable characters in relatable scenarios.

The students painted rainbows on the walls of the library and sorted the books using the Rainbow Reading system so the children could easily find books at their own reading ability

This has inspired us to begin discussions on extending our former Icitabo Project. It is clear the extent to which our first-hand experience here has increased our enthusiasm and determination to keep making a difference. 

While we have not yet decided the ins and outs of next year’s project, we have agreed that our goal should be to secure the provision of relatable books in the Bemba language and to do this in a way that helps empower Zambian people to create and further this project themselves. We want to ensure that the project will be sustainable and that it will have the potential to grow. 

Watching the children of Sables reading together from the books we had helped provide was a magical and fulfilling experience for all of us.

One thing we discussed was supporting local people to set up a publishing house here in Kabwe to produce new children’s books. These could be regionally tailored Bemba versions of stories and fairy-tales that children could more easily relate to, original stories by Zambian writers, or indeed stories inspired by the experiences of the children themselves. 

They could also be traditional folk-tales as told by local storytellers recorded and made accessible for future generations of Zambians.

We have entertained many different ideas for making the creation of these stories a possibility (like the publishing house), but we agree that our role should be in supporting and empowering local people to create these stories, instead of creating them ourselves.

The Library

Yesterday we opened the library for the first time to a small flood of children eager to enjoy their new books. To tell the truth, the first children that entered were not children that were already avid young readers but a group of 7-year-olds that went straight to the hardest level of fact-books, and poured over them with wide eyes – even though the books were upside-down! After a while, with some encouragement, they were reading aloud to each other from storybooks with illustrations (the right way up this time!). Even those who were too young to read had found some older students who were happy to read aloud to them. 

Yesterday we opened the library for the first time to a small flood of children eager to enjoy their new books

Up until Grade 4, children here only read in Bemba. Even above that age, only a few of the children were interested in books in English, even though English books overwhelmingly outnumber the Bemba books. This reaffirmed our belief in the importance of providing books for the children in their native language; although we have no doubt the English books will be put to good use. Watching the children of Sables reading together from the books we had helped provide was a magical and fulfilling experience for all of us. We also had the privilege of seeing one of the books we translated (Ten in the Bed, to be exact) read out to one of the classes, and I would simply be lying to you if I said it was anything less than heart-warming.

Although we had always known that The Icitabo Project had the potential to impact the lives of people here, hearing the children reading, laughing, and repeating the stories to each other was probably the moment we fully understood the difference those books could make.


To learn more about The Icitabo Project follow the team on Twitter - @icitaboproject