“As a tourist, you experience a contrived version of culture—but I had the chance to get to know the people of West Africa on a deeper level,” said Danielle Rowaan of London, Ontario.
Rowaan, 22, returned in July from a year in West Africa as a volunteer with the Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC), recently renamed World Renew.
“I saw what I had learned in the classroom about international relations and global development come alive in real life,” she said. “And I can call these people my friends.”
Danielle Rowaan with some Fulani friends
For Rowaan, who says she is passionate about linguistics, international relations, and serving Christ, the internship was an opportunity to live out her passions as a volunteer supporting box libraries in West Africa.
A box library it is exactly what it sounds like: a library in a box. They are common in countries where literacy is low and reading resources limited.
The boxes often have just one librarian or library manager, a member of the community who reads. When new books become available, the library manager alerts community members and tracks circulation to make sure that reading material is shared as broadly as possible.
During her internship, Rowaan lived and worked among the Fulani, a nomadic tribe of cattle herders. Her work involved meeting with librarian managers, taking inventory, and writing book reviews. Many of the books had been written by Fulani people living in a city.
Rowaan also worked with library managers and consultants to determine which books would be most beneficial in improving people’s lives and livelihoods. Popular topics included cattle herding, agriculture, and children’s health, as well as books about human rights.
A highlight was helping to run a meeting for 30 library managers. All of the managers were men, as the local culture dictates that only men should learn to read or write. By the end of the workshop, however, they commented: “I guess we should help our wives learn to read.”
“It was a pretty cool moment,” says Rowaan.
“Fifteen years ago no one here was reading, and you could be ridiculed for even being interested in books,” she says. “It is a real testament to the work of World Renew that there are readers now, and people who want to learn.”