In order to finish their schoolwork, many children living in the Kanifing District of The Gambia take to the streets or public markets at night — sometimes late at night — to find electric lights.
A densely populated area with more than 500,000 residents, Kanifing has no library where children can study or read.
But that is all about to change thanks to a partnership between the City of Madison and the Municipality of Kanifing. The construction of the first public library in Kanifing, a Madison sister city, is underway.
“The initial stage is to do something immediately because we feel we have an emergency on our hands,” said Kanifing’s Lord Mayor Talib Ahmed Bensouda on a visit to Madison this week. “Students need to immediately have a safe space where they could learn. Right now how students learn, especially in the wee hours of the night, is using public facilities such as markets or streetlights. So as you can imagine, that is a very unsafe way to learn.”
Bensouda said Gambia is a young nation where 60% of the population is between the ages of 16 and 25. As a result, he said, ambition and the will to empower the student population is very high.
“This library is long overdue,” he said. “Myself, I never had access to a public library. Since I came into office in Kanifing we’ve had limited resources but unlimited willpower. We have a lot of ambition to get things done. So when I came to Madison I came to look for ideas, I came to look for inspiration.”
Bensouda’s vision is to have a library system that would be innovative in promoting learning opportunities for people of all ages and he hopes it will transform his city.
The library complex in Kanifing is expected to be built in three phases. The Kanifing Municipal Council has already made a land purchase and the first phase would be to establish a well-lit courtyard and the initial library building. That building would be one of the few places with electricity for children to study and would target secondary students and young adults.
Phase two would expand the building to provide access to early childhood education and phase three would further expand the building to make room for a job skills training center.
Madison Mayor Satya Rhodes-Conway said Tuesday that access to a library and books is what led to her success. As a child, she moved around to different cities but would always find a library and read as many books as she could. In college and in graduate school, she was able to use the resources available in the public library to enhance her studies or conduct research.
“My entire education was possible because of libraries,” Rhodes-Conway said. “You heard there’s only one library in the entire Gambia. But I know that there is a young woman somewhere in Kanifing who aspires to study science. I know there’s a young man who wants to be the next lord mayor. I know there are young people all across the city who, if they had the opportunity, would be staying up late in the library. They would be checking out books. They would be looking at scientific journals. They would be bringing younger siblings to learn how to read just for fun. And that’s why this project is so important.”
Madison Ald. Samba Baldeh, who is Gambian, said that this project is important for both Kanifing and for Madison. The Dane County area is home to over a thousand Gambians, Baldeh said in an interview, and it is important for them to have a connection like the one the City of Madison is nurturing with Kanifing.
Baldeh, who was recently in Gambia, says that the only library in the country is in Banjul, an island city of only 25,000 people that is the country’s capital. Placing resources in Kanifing will reach hundreds of thousands of additional people.
While in Madison last year, Bensouda connected with the Streets Division for the City of Madison about waste management. In Kanifing, waste collection was done by men on donkey-driven carts. After discussions with the Streets Department, Kanifing was able to get a number of trucks to replace the carts.
“Now all of the residents have waste collection,” Bensouda said. “And because of that, malaria infections have gone down and people generally feel healthier. So I can’t emphasize how grateful we are to the people of Madison for your leadership. Thank you so much.”
Madison has nine sister city relationships and began partnering with the municipality of Kanifing in 2016.
“Madison’s relationships with our Sister Cities, including Kanifing, are essential to breaking down barriers to cultural understanding and connecting with our city’s immigrant populations,” Rhodes-Conway said.
Greg Mickells, director of the Madison Public Library, told the Cap Times that the library in Madison will send books and other resources to help the new Kanifing Library. Anyone who wants to donate money, books or other resources or learn more about the library project can visit madisonkanifing.org.
“When I came to Madison, I was privileged to come to your library and see all that you are doing and I was excited. We took a lot from what Greg is doing here,” Bensouda said. “So, it’s very exciting for us.”