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The Uganda Digital Bookmobile

by Richard Koman
02/26/2004

Richard Koman last wrote about the Internet Bookmobile in October 2002 for the O'Reilly Network and for Salon. Earlier that fall, the Internet Archive's Brewster Kahle, Koman, and some friends took the Bookmobile across the U.S., making books at schools and libraries, and winding up in Washington, D.C. in time for oral arguments in Eldred v. Ashcroft, a challenge to the 1998 copyright extension law. The Supreme Court rejected the challenge and copyright terms remain absurdly long, but the Bookmobile made a good demo application for the public domain: it offered a resounding answer to the question, "What is the public domain actually good for?"

In 2003, Koman and Brad deGraf founded Anywhere Books, a spin-off of the Archive, dedicated to deploying the bookmobile approach in development contexts. They received a grant from the World Bank's InfoDev group to partner with the National Library of Uganda to create the Uganda Digital Bookmobile. The project includes scanning stations and a printing system at the National Library in Kampala. The Bookmobile itself focuses on a relatively small geographic area about an hour from Kampala. Koman has chronicled his experiences after arriving in Kampala.

It was a good day, the first good day we'd had in our two weeks in Kampala. All of the equipment for the Uganda Digital Bookmobile project had finally arrived, and we were dragging heavy tables around the little room that served as project headquarters at the National Library of Uganda. We were moving computers around, figuring out how much equipment to run through the UPSes, and deciding where all the other machinery would go.

It was, as my friend Kevin Cloud (who flew from San Francisco to join me on this adventure) wrote in an email dispatch at the time, "A totally rock'n'roll eight-hour workday in stupefying heat. ... We tore the whole place apart, moving tables and hanging curtains and blocking non-lockable doors, unpacking computers and monitors and printers and getting stations arranged and partly configured. ... The library staff was appalled at the amount of work we got done, and slightly bewildered at the sight of the bigshot World-Bank-grant guys crawling around with screwdrivers and carrying boxes."

Now all the wasted time of the past two weeks -- the meetings with Ugandan officials in which nothing more than "You are very welcome" was said; the days where the power cut off at 10 a.m. and stayed off until well after 6 p.m., of negotiating office politics (it turns out that senior library staff are resisting if not actively undercutting the project -- why still remains a mystery), of making repeated calls to the clearing agent only to watch the sun set with my boxes stuck at Entebbe Airport for another day -- all that was soon to fade in the brilliance of a boy's white-toothed smile as he made his first book.

Kneeling on the hard concrete floor, plugging and unplugging wires from a computer, I was surprised by the chattering buzz of a crowd, and above it all, keeping a semblance of order, the voice of a young Scottish woman. "Hey, "Maddy's here!" Kevin called out. I stood up and saw 12 or 15 very black faces and somewhere in the back, Maddy herself, so thin and pale with her blonde dreadlocks, and another 20-something Brit with purple hair. The whole crowd stood outside the door wondering what to do now.

Photograph.

"Come in, come in," I said. "Everybody, just cram on in." With such a small room, so many kids, all the tables and computers and machinery and wires, it felt a bit like the Marx Brothers' stateroom scene.

How Long Will We Let This Continue?

Kevin and I met Madeline Leslie one day as we slid our way through the pool of humidity that is Kampala. As we crossed the central square, we encountered an astounding art installation: dozens of clay heads mounted on clay columns, a few full-body sculptures of children, one with arms held aloft, hands blocking her head from unseen blows. They were positioned tightly together, a clay village of faces, silent but bearing witness to what their young creators had seen, heard, and lived. Along the fence hung a long banner: "100 TIMES THIS MANY CHILDREN LEAVE THEIR HOMES EVERY EVENING. SEEKING THE RELATIVE SAFETY OF GULU TOWN, THEY SLEEP ROUGH." And this one, in huge red letters: "HOW LONG ARE WE GOING TO LET THIS CONTINUE?"

Photograph.

Milling in front of the statues was a crowd of people. I saw four schoolgirls standing and staring intently at the statues. Their childhood was interrupted in this one moment, brought face to face with the representation of another child's interrupted life. The installation is like the stern and outraged cry of a prophet, the silent howl that demands honesty, guilt, action.

I had some idea of what this all about; my parents had emailed me BBC articles about war in the north of Uganda -- articles about atrocities and abductions. But when I asked Charles Batambuze, the librarian who would be managing the project, if Uganda was safe, he laughed and said that it was only a problem in the north. Now Maddy was bringing the problem to Kampala, asking people to look at these children's creations and ask themselves if they were prepared to ignore the abductions, mutilations, and murders performed by the "Lord's Resistance Army" (LRA) in the north of the country.

The name refers to the army's stated desire to install a Christian government in Uganda, one supposedly based on the Ten Commandments. The rebels shoot up villages, massacring people where they stand, abducting children, and often leaving mutilated bodies on the streets for all the villagers to see. (It gets far more gruesome; take a look at the web sites listed at the end of this article to learn more.)

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The sculptures, Maddy explained, were created by some of the kids who sleep in the shelter in the northern town of Gulu. (Some 2,000 kids sleep here, crowded onto the floor, sleeping head to crotch. Because of the rebel incursions, the children are not safe in their village homes; they are safer sleeping together in the town, on the streets, or in the shelter.) Maddy's project started amid abduction. She found a village where the inhabitants were willing to dig up the clay for her project. Maddy provided tarpaulins to keep the clay damp.

"I returned the next afternoon to find my clay crusty under the cloudless sky. I discovered that hours after my visit the village was visited by the LRA. The rebels took 26 children, food, clothes, and my tarps, I was informed in an unemotional monotone. Even so, a happy band of workers set to the task at hand. Good humor in disastrous situations never fails to amaze me," she writes on her web site.

"... I asked them to make life-size portraits of themselves or their close friends. A head, two arms, two feet, and a body. I packed the work in the kiln-cum-airing-cupboard and dried their work slowly. One young girl said that the stacked clay pieces reminded her of the rebels hacking bodies into pieces and boiling their limbs and parts in a cooking pot. ... To be around uninhibited kids as they produce artwork is a pleasure. I think there is a lot to learn from their immediate reactions and fearlessness in the creative process."

Once we assured her that we weren't just tourists and explained the Bookmobile project, Maddy got excited about the possibilities of making books for the Gulu kids. She said that there are no children's books in the library in Gulu (although Charles assured us that they send children's books to all the rural libraries). According to Gordon Bell, another amazing British expat in Kampala, the rural librarians complain they can't put the books out because they have no shelves. Rather than shaking the trees for shelves, they simply leave the books in boxes.

About a week after our meeting with Maddy, she sent an email saying that she would be bringing about a dozen kids to Lake Victoria for a camping trip and promised to bring them by the Library for a book-making demo.

Making Books

And so here they are, crowding into our chaotic little room. We still have no Internet connection (that is yet another tale in the fine art of getting straight answers from Ugandan businesspeople), but I have copied a few dozen books from the Internet Archive onto DVD. I bring up the stunning cover of the 1900 edition of Beatrix Potter's The Tale of Peter Rabbit.

While a few Project Gutenberg (which recently celebrated the 10,000 e-book mark) texts have been formatted for printing, we mostly use the Archive's collection of books in DJVu format. Using some very sophisticated algorithms, DJVu by Lizard Tech analyzes a TIFF file and breaks the image down into background, foreground, and text layers. Through its mathematical representation of pages, DJVu typically achieves 100:1 compression rates. In the case of Peter Rabbit, for example, 680MB of original TIFFs were compressed to a 1.7MB DJVu file. Eventually, NLU will be scanning and encoding in DJVu Ugandan books, many in local languages, such as Enima n’endabirira y’ebitooke ey’omulembe and Amagezi bugaga.

With the book file up on screen, I sent it to our HP LaserJet with a duplexing attachment. The HP driver has a "booklet" mode for printing pages two-up and automatically laying the book out correctly. Pulling the pages from the printer, I set the printouts in the guillotine printer and let one of the kids pull the big handle down. It makes a satisfying crunch as it slices the stack, and soon the kids are jostling for cutting rights.

With the pages cut in half, they go into the amazing Powis Parker FastBack binding machine, a hot-melt glue system that glues the pages together and wraps a binding strip around them. Operation is as simple as pushing the machine's one big button. Once it's done, the kids can measure the distances for trimming in the guillotine, and the book is done. The whole process takes about ten minutes, depending on how long it takes to print the book.

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I embarked on this project with a generalized notion of doing some good in the world, of applying the public domain and the cool bookmobile idea, and making books for Uganda seemed as good a place as any to try it. Now, having made these personal connections, helping, listening, and talking to these Gulu kids who endure so much, living in the clutches of an insane evil, I am starting to understand the enormity of a book. You can see it in the smiles, in the jostling for control of the cutter. A book, her only book, made herself, with computers, a paper cutter, and these strange Mzungus ... ("Mzungu" -- perhaps the only Swahili word used in Uganda -- means "white person.") These kids are so strong, so amazing -- I loved them all.

The Bookmobile

I won't go into all the dreary details of how many trips to the Ugandan Revenue Authority it took, or how many weeks we waited, but eventually we did get our hands on our bookmobile vehicle, a 4WD diesel Mitsubishi Delica. The coolest thing about the Uganda bookmobile is the on-board energy system developed by Arizona-based African Energy. Our system consists of three deep-cycle batteries, a major inverter, and a breaker switch. The batteries are charged on AC power at the Library, and when the bookmobile is on the road, the batteries can drive the computer, monitor, printer, and the bookbinder.

Just a few days before we were set to leave Uganda, we got the bookmobile on the road. Kevin managed to build out the vehicle -- just try to find plywood in Kampala -- install the electrical system, and position the equipment in some functional way in the van.

So on October 31, 2003, we made our maiden voyage to Caezaria Complex Public Library in rural Buikwe subcountry, part of the Mukono district, roughly an hour from Kampala. That Friday, like most, was "quiz day." Some 200 P-7 (Primary 7th, roughly 6th graders) students sat quietly in rows in the church-like library building -- the library books are kept in a small, locked room. Of course, as the bookmobile pulled up and we started to set up, things were a little less orderly inside the library, but it didn't take much discipline from the teachers running the show to return things to order.

A sure sign we were in rural Uganda: I had left NLU librarians Charles Batumbuze and Carol Kamohoro to address the assembly and explain what the bookmobile was all about. But Francis, the director and creator of the Caezaria library (he built this building himself, with his own hands, because, he says, he had lived both without a library and with a library, and he wants his children to have the benefit of a community library), demanded that I come in and address the students because "many of them have never seen a Mzungu."

Even in central Kampala, taking an ill-advised shortcut, dozens of children ran up to the Bookmobile as it attempted to navigate the many ruts and potholes on the Ring Road, calling out "Mzungu, mzungu!" And this, with the high-rises of the capital appearing just over the hill. And when a visit to our friend Felix's house for a meal of "local chicken" (gamey, tough, and very tasty) involved a short walk to the local store for some beer (all of which are pretty bad, by the way), the children were especially taken with pony-tailed Kevin. Laughing and pointing, they said in the Luganda language, "Face of a man, hair of a woman!"

Each class -- dressed in pink, blue, or yellow school uniforms, many in bare feet -- took turns watching and helping Carol make books. Watching these scenes, trying to put myself in the kids' heads. Did they see this as simply a wonderful and fun day? Or was this like a Bookmobile from Mars? It didn't really matter: clearly, the kids were thrilled to take part in their own educations, their own futures, in a culture where passing annual exams is far more important than the joy of reading.

Photograph.

As we got through the last children, we quickly packed the van up and bolted back to Kampala, because our friend Gordon Bell, owner of a half-dozen community radio stations, had arranged for us to demo to the Minister of Gender, head of the agency that oversees the Library. As we pulled in to Gordon's office, we got a call from her secretary that she wouldn't make the appointment. But then Gordon, who is well-connected because of politicians' needs to talk to their constituencies over his stations, called her on her cell phone, zipped over to her office on his motorcycle, and brought back "Honorable" sitting side-saddle on the back of the hog. After, she shook hands with us all and gave Carol a giant hug ("I am so glad to see my sister here," she said), I gave a quick demo of the process. In less than a minute, she interrupted to make a call on her phone, to her number two, saying, "You have to come here and see this beautiful thing these people have brought."

The National Library says its mission is to "create a culture of reading in Uganda," and clearly there is a long way to go. But the Bookmobile is becoming a big part of that culture shift. Teachers and schools are starting reading lessons for the first time in many schools because they now have books to read. Kids are discovering the world of books and reading. From the older public domain materials, they are discovering distant worlds, long-ago times; they are learning something about the America they only know from television, they are discovering the British culture that they still (sometimes unconsciously) live by. From the books that NLU is scanning, they will get more immediate access to Ugandan culture, local language primers, health information, and more. Most importantly, I hope, they will discover that they want to read, to learn, to explore. Even -- especially -- for the kids sleeping on the streets of Gulu at night, a book is a lifeline to a future.

The Uganda Digital Bookmobile needs additional funding to keep going. The funded project will make just 6,000 books and impact perhaps 10,000 children, while Uganda has a population of 24 million. Please consider making a contribution to Anywhere Books, to help continue operation of the Uganda Digital Bookmobile and to fund the creation of additional programs. Make checks payable to Rudolf Steiner Foundation and indicate Anywhere Books on the memo line. Mail to Anywhere Books, P.O. Box 29244, San Francisco, California, 94129. For more information, email .

Richard Koman is a freelancer writer and editor based in Sonoma County, California. He works on SiliconValleyWatcher, ZDNet blogs, and is a regular contributor to the O'Reilly Network.


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