Mon, Dec 19, 2005 - Page 6 News List

In Malawi, books are most precious resource

LIFESAVERS In a country ravaged by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis, doctors are desperate for books that will arm them with knowledge in the fight against disease

THE OBSERVER , LONDON

A crowd of hundreds had gathered outside. Some people had been waiting for an hour and were pressed up against the glass. As the door was unlatched at 8:30am, they surged forward, the men using their strength to get to the front. Once inside they ran to secure a place.

This is a scene replayed every morning in towns and cities across Malawi. But the crowds are not racing to get the front seats at a concert or sports match. Instead they are rushing to find a seat in their local library and get hold of one of the country's most scarce and precious resources: a book.

"We are desperate for more books," said Patrick Achitabwino, public relations officer at the National Library Service. "For most people there is no Internet access and books are the main source of information. Without them there is no knowledge. Without knowledge this country cannot develop. People talk about hunger and disease -- but without books we cannot even start to tackle these problems."

Most of the books are bought with donations, and many come from Book Aid International. Their journey begins in a London warehouse where they are sorted, boxed and transported to the docks. From there they are sent on a long boat ride to Durban, South Africa, and on by truck to the capital of Malawi, Lilongwe.

The books are then loaded into cars and carried over bumpy roads snaking deep into the countryside. They finish their journey in the hands of grateful teachers and doctors, giving them new knowledge to save lives.

But the donations fall desperately short of what is needed. Some rural hospitals receive just five new medical textbooks a year.

In the Malamulo Mission Hospital, in the Thyolo region, a young doctor was treating a woman who looked frail and weak. He said he desperately needed more knowledge to help diagnose patients' illnesses.

He explained how they viewed books: not simply as paper and words but as the path to improved healthcare. Books, he said, had taught them how to administer antiretroviral drugs to help HIV sufferers live longer. They had provided the information that syringes should not be re-used and dirty surgical equipment needed more than soap and water when they were cleaned.

Treatment for Malawi's most prevalent diseases -- HIV, malaria and tuberculosis -- is constantly changing with new drugs, tests and methods being discovered almost daily.

In the medical college attached to the hospital, the library feels as if it is in a time warp. Dark wood shelves are covered in tatty books with peeling corners. As the librarian pulls them off the shelves, each is older than the last: 1962, 1950, 1932. Even the newest books are 10 years old.

"Someone said knowledge doubles every 10 years in medicine," said James Misiri, from the college. "We are using books from 1995, so we are twice as far behind. So many lives could be saved if only we had the latest books."

On the radio and in newspapers a key topics for discussion is the country's reading culture and what can be done to improve it.

Back at library service headquarters in Malawi, Jonathan Ching-walu -- who runs the outreach program to get books delivered to rural locations -- summed up the feeling in the country; "If you don't have knowledge you are as good as dead."

Giving money for books is not something many people think of doing; food or clothes seem more urgent. But this durable gift of knowledge could not be more important to aid the development of Malawi and others among the world's poorest countries.

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