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The Power of the Library in a War-Torn Afghan Village

by on August 15, 2016

Tucked away in the basement an adobe home in the rural Panjwai District in Afghanistan is small one-room library. It has two shelves of about sixteen hundred books and magazines, a collection that has been largely developed through donations from around the world. The library gets about five visitors a day, but to twenty-two-year-old Matiullah Wesa, “five visitors in the village are more important than 100 in the city.”[1]

The library in Panjwai is just a slice of the work that Wesa’s organization, Pen Path, does to bring books to the most war-torn regions of Afghanistan. He’s started seven libraries in rural Afghanistan, collected twenty thousand books, and has worked to reopen schools closed because of violence throughout the country.[2]

Improving Literacy in Afghanistan

Access to books and magazines in a country where literacy rates are at 31 percent for adults and 20 percent for women is vital. The low literacy rates in the country can be partly attributed to poverty, as well as to the dominance of the Taliban and war.[3] Education is one of the many priorities of humanitarian and development assistance to Afghanistan, but female literacy is one of the slowest areas to grow over the last decade.[4]

Muhammad Nasim Haidary serves as the librarian in Panjwai, as the collection is located in his own home. While the library is available to both men and women, he has faced a small dilemma when it comes to serving the female readers in his community. Sharing women’s names publicly is not accepted socially, so he can’t keep their names in the library’s register. One solution proposed by the people in the village is to create pseudonyms for the women so they can still check out books, but remembering who is who might get confusing.[5] Even so, the fact that the women in Panjwai now have access to books and magazines is a small yet significant step for improving literacy rates.

The Importance of Libraries as Safe Spaces

The Panjwai library not only serves the need for literacy and information access, but it is also a place of peace and safety. Hazrat-Wali Haidary, the eldest son of the family who houses the library, said that he wouldn’t have agreed to host the library a few years earlier.

“Everyone was suspicious of everything, and I wouldn’t have wanted to welcome trouble. But now, relative to other places, it is peaceful here over the past three years, and there is an atmosphere for the people to turn to education and books.”[6]

The concept of the library as a place of safety is an international one. The Ferguson Public Library, for example, provided a safe haven during the protests around the police shooting of Michael Brown.[7] Public libraries in Europe were on the forefront of taking in refugees seeking asylum from civil war in Syria.[8]

In Panjwai, the library provides both opportunity and sanctuary. The libraries are just one part of Wesa’s mission for the Pen Path organization.

“Education is humanity’s best tool as it allows us to give more freedom, and brings peace, prosperity, and a better future to the people of war torn countries,” he told Global Citizen in a recent interview.[9]

To learn more about Pen Path and Matiullah Wesa’s incredible work in Afghanistan, visit www.ppcs-qalam.org.

[1] Mujib Mashal, “To Feed Hungry Minds, Afghans Seed a Ravaged Land With Books,” New York Times, March 30, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Joe McCarthy, “This Afghan Student Is Bringing Libraries to His War-ravaged Country,” Global Citizen, April 15, 2016.
[4] Lauryn Oates, “The Mother of All Problems: Female Literacy in Afghanistan,” The Guardian, June 21, 2013.
[5] Mujib Mashal, “To Feed Hungry Minds, Afghans Seed a Ravaged Land With Books.”
[6] Ibid.
[7] Lisa Peet, “Ferguson Library Provides Calm Refuge for a Torn Community,” Library Journal, November 25, 2014.
[8] Julia Pyatetsky, “Refugees Supported by Public Libraries in Europe,” Public Libraries Online, November 24, 2015.
[9] Joe McCarthy, “Why This Man Risks His Life to Educate Girls in Afghanistan,” Global Citizen, August 4, 2016.

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