|   Posted: February 09, 2022

Our First Library

Ripa is sitting in the library with a book open

In northern Bangladesh where Ripa’s family lives, green rice paddies and rolling hills stretch for miles. The region is also home to some of the poorest districts in the country: 77 percent of the population lives in poverty, more than half in extreme poverty.

Most adults work the land as day laborers, growing vegetables, picking tea, and planting and harvesting rice. As soon as they were old enough, Ripa’s parents joined their families in the rice fields. They have never been beyond their region’s borders. In their village, where electricity hasn’t reached the entire community and the literacy rate sits below the national average, accessing books has never been a possibility.

However, poverty and lack of education are intertwined. In Bangladesh, where 58 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, one in four people over the age of 15 cannot read or write. According to the Borgen Project, fewer resources and less of a focus on education at home mean children growing up in poverty are behind from the very beginning.

In Bangladesh, UNICEF reports just 47% of children in grade 2 or 3 had achieved a minimum proficiency in reading. Research shows that children who struggle to read by third grade are at increased risk of dropping out of high school. If they also live in poverty, children are six times more likely to fail to graduate than their literate peers.

Yet according to UNESCO, if all students in low-income countries left school with elementary reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty. Reading is the gateway to lifelong learning—helping to boost future employment opportunities and income.

In Ripa’s community, Compassion’s local partner had a vision to improve the children’s literacy rate to help lift them out of poverty. Their strategy was simple yet groundbreaking. Using Critical Intervention funds, they planned to get books into children’s hands by founding the village’s first library.

As center staff began hefting heavy shelves and cartons to the child development center, the news spread. Still, the community was flummoxed: no one in the village could puzzle out what the library’s purpose was. “We had to explain to all the parents about the new library that was introduced at the center for the children,” said Dilip, the center manager.

The children suspected books were in the cartons; they didn’t know they were for them to read in their spare time. The only books they knew were their school textbooks. Project implementor Mina broke the news at the end of a day’s center activities.

“Children,” she began with a smile on her face, “how many of you want to hear a story from the books that have just arrived?” A story book was a new concept for the children. They looked at each other, wondering who would be the first to raise their hand. After a moment of silence, a bold voice spoke up. “I want to hear a story,” yelled Prosanto, with both his hands in the air. The entire classroom burst out giggling. Hands shot up all over.

Ripa and Eti hold a stack of books
a tutor reads to a group of students

As Mina began to read, the children listened with rapt attention. Their interest in reading began! Meanwhile, the high school students were excited to access books and sample previous years’ question papers to practice for their school board exams. These books cost between 500 and 800 Bangladeshi taka (US $5.80-9.30) each. With the poverty line at $2.15 per day, such books are luxuries for parents who struggle to put food on the table. That afternoon, dozens of children and teenagers returned home with crisp, new books under their arms. Seeing their children engrossed in reading was a special experience for their parents.

As they listen to their children reading out loud, parents who have never had the opportunity to sit in a classroom are learning, too. Until they saw the library for themselves, Biren and Kamini didn’t know so many books could be found in one place.

“My teenager brings home books for reading every other week,” said Biren. “It makes me proud to see my girl able to read and write, which I have never been able to do. I have been a farmer since I was a teenager.”

Eighteen-year-old Ripa says the library is helping her with her studies. “With access to all the books in the library, I have been able to read storybooks, magazines, and practice from the model test papers in my very own village. As we face the board exams, all of us senior students are very glad that the center has thought up this innovative idea to prepare us,” she said.

Her friend Iti agrees. “Since I was able to get access to the books near my home, my grade 10 board exams were a great success! Now I’m looking forward to doing even better in my upcoming exams.”

As for the little ones, their ears listen keenly for when a tutor is about to read a story at the center. When they sit at the tutor’s feet, their friends outside crowd the windows to listen in. The village’s first library is a success, and the children and parents hope it won’t be the last.