Seven years later

January 23, 2017

Well, it has taken 7 years, but today I am happy to say that I have finally delivered on the promises I made so rashly back in 2010. I am back in Freetown on a monitoring visit for the book donation charity I now work for, having given up my career in academic librarianship to follow this path. My visit, by chance, coincided with the presentation, today, of hundreds of brand new books to the correctional facility on Pademba Road. Note: Correctional facility, not prison. The government has embraced the concept of rehabilitation of prisoners, and the library is key to that. These books were donated by the charity I work for last year; I had the pleasure of selecting suitable titles from the books donated by publishers in the UK. They were shipped to Sierra Leone by our partner organisation Practical Tools Initiative, but for various administrative reasons could not be presented to the correctional centre by Advocaid until today.  Which was lucky for me as I got to be present at the ceremony!

A very moving event for me after all this time. Advocaid deserve all the credit for building and staffing the library, and it was a real joy to hand over these books today. Most of the donated books on the shelves were old and tatty and out of date, so the new books –  which cover all subjects from fiction and biographies (such as that of the world’s most famous prisoner, Nelson Mandela) to academic books from secondary level upwards, as well as books for children –  will bring a much needed boost to the programme.  I met some of the inmates for whom the library is “a place of solace”, the books a source of knowledge and (virtual) escape. I hope that access to these books will transform lives inside this place, and that when I next return, I will hear their own stories.


More Library photos

January 28, 2013

Here are some more photos from inside the new library. Sabrina Mahtani of AdvocAid, one of the prime movers for this project, says: “we got a Prison Officer to paint the alphabet and numbers on the walls so the walls themselves could be a space of learning!”

Library walls  Digital Camera

Pademba Road Prison has a library!

January 24, 2013

At long last, I am very happy to report that the prison library at Pademba Road has been built! The United Nations kindly provided resources for the building: here are members of the UN team, with AdvocAid staff, onsite:

Staff from AdvocAid and UN on site

Staff from AdvocAid and UN on site

Some more pictures of the library under construction, courtesy of AdvocAid’s Sabrina Mahtani:

Library window Library building

The library building has since been completed – the next step is to fill it with books and appoint a librarian! The books are on their way – some have been bought locally with funds raised and donated by kind supporters (thank you!), and some books have been donated. Here is AdvocAid’s Finance Officer, Julie, with the results of their local book donation drive:

Donated books

Julie and the generously donated books

Thank you to everyone whose support and generosity has brought this library into being. There will be an official launch soon, so watch this space for further news. Now we need a librarian to get those books to work!

It’s happening!

July 25, 2011

Exciting news! After some delays the library at Pademba Road Prison is finally being built. We hope to have some photos to share with you soon. In the meantime we urgently need funds to fill it with shelves, books, computers – and of course, a librarian. Watch this space for news of fundraising events, or donate via our JustGiving page. Any suggestions of likely corporate donors would also be gratefully received!

Fundraising event for World Book Day

April 12, 2010

On Friday 23rd Aril, which is World Book Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, there will be a fundraising event for the Sierra Leone libraries in Stockwell, south west London. Books Behind Bars is an evening of live music, DJs, spoken word and comedy hosted by Glenda Read, Crack Librarian. The Grosvenor can be found on Sidney Street, a short walk from either Stockwell or Brixton underground stations, it’s only 4 pounds to get in and the very reasonably priced bar is open long after midnight. Come along and have some fun while supporting the project!

Books behind Bars flyer

Books Behind Bars fundraiser

New film about Sierra Leone

March 24, 2010

Yesterday I went to see the film War Don Don (“War is Over” in Krio), which is showing as part of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. The film is a documentary about the Sierra Leone Special Court which tried and convicted war criminals after the civil war. It focuses on the case of Issa Sesay, a battle commander in the RUF who rose to become a senior figure in the rebel army and played a major role in ending the war. He is now serving a lifelong sentence for war crimes committed by the RUF, for which the court considered him responsible. The film is extremely thought-provoking and raises important issues about the Special Court. I can recommend this film to anyone interested in the situation in Sierra Leone; it also features footage of the Special Court buildings, some of which (e.g. the cells) are soon to house the new women’s prison (and library).

Friday: Farewell

March 21, 2010

Today was our last day in Sierra Leone and it began with a meeting over breakfast with Dr Frederick John, who is pioneering a sustainable energy project in Sierra Leone and hoping to involve the information profession to help develop the project. Many lives are lost in remote areas through easily preventable causes: many women bleed to death after childbirth, for instance, because people don’t realise the urgency of getting them to a doctor. Infants too often die for want of proper hygiene after birth; Dr John’s project aims to introduce simple solar power for hot water and other necessities to help prevent this. Combined with access to health information, the death rate could be dramatically reduced.

I spent the rest of the morning on a return visit to Pademba Road with Sabrina and Alison from AdvocAid. We delivered the books and bits of equipment (chalk, pens etc.) we had bought after our last visit, and whilst Sabrina and Alison interviewed some of the women privately  about their cases, I had the chance to chat more informally with others. One woman told me her story: 4 years ago she was arrested for debt and placed in the prison. She was pregnant at the time, and had her baby inside, a daughter who stayed with her to the age of two. At two she was removed and placed in an orphanage, and her mother has not seen her since.  AdvocAid have traced her daughter and were able to show the mother a photograph, but she does not know if or when she will see her daughter again. This woman is still awaiting trial.

I have come across a surprising lack of support for the prison library project, including some hostility from unexpected quarters: why should “criminals” have such “luxury”? This woman’s story sums up all the reasons, for me, why people in Pademba Road Prison need our help. Like many prisoners here, she has been on remand for years; if and when she is released, she hopes to start up a business with the skills she has learned here: there is a beading workshop for the women so she hopes to be able to make and sell bags and jewellery to support herself and her daughter. For which, she also needs the literacy and numeracy skills which we hope to be able to assist with. Education is not a luxury.

Later that day, after a souvenir shopping trip to the Big Market and a final PHI meeting at the hotel, we took our leave of Freetown. On the way to the airport ferry (Lungi airport is situated across the bay from Freetown itself so getting there involves an hour’s journey by boat!) we paid a final visit to the King Tom cemetery for me to visit my uncle’s grave one last time. Although I doubt it will really be my last time: there is much, much to be done to help the prisoners, the schoolchildren, the disabled, the universities, the public libraries, the health system, the remote villages, shanty towns and camps here. Libraries and information are just one small part of what is needed, but it’s something we can achieve. I’ll be back when the prison libraries are built, and we’ll have the books to fill them and the librarians to manage them. That’s a promise.

Big Market

Clothes stalls at the Big market, Freetown

Statues, Big Market
Wooden carvings at the Big market

Thursday: PHI workshop

March 21, 2010

Today we presented another all-day PHI workshop at COMAHS; this time the theme was Issues in Achieving Information for All in Sierra Leone, and the attendees were all library and information professionals and students (some of whom had been at my talk on Wednesday), from different sectors (schools, university, national libraries and archives, health). The focus of the day’s practical sessions was the future direction of SLAALIP, the Sierra Leone Association of Archivists, Librarians and Information Professionals. SLAALIP is the Sierra Leonean equivalent of CILIP, but has no resources: no staff, no office, no web presence. People worked in groups to suggest actions required, and voted at the end of the day for which suggestions should be prioritised. The most popular ideas included: International networking with partners in other countries; professional development and training for members; a library established in every educational institution and government ministry in the country; and the development of professional standards and codes of conduct. It was a very interesting day which concluded with all participants  receiving a certificate from PHI – and a surprise “This is your Life” moment for Shane Godbolt, who was presented with a beautiful photo album commemorating the DelPHI project by Nance Mjamtu-Sie, former COMAHS librarian and PHI partner.

Voting resultsPresentation 1

Rev. Oliver Harding, Fourah Bay College librarian, presents the results of the voting; a participant receives her certificate.

Shane and Nance

"This is your life!"

In the evening, I joined Sabrina and Alison, along with a journalist called Caroline from Journalists for Human Rights, for dinner at a Senegalese cafe in town, where I enjoyed a dinner of pounded cassava with plantain and vegetables and a most welcome bottle of Guinness, with a background of sweet  Senegalese music. (A JHR journalist has recently exposed the terrible conditions of Sierra Leone’s prisons).

Tomorrow, on my last day here, we will visit Pademba Road prison again.

Wednesday afternoon: the Special Court

March 17, 2010

This afternoon I met with Sabrina and Alison from AdvocAid, to visit the buildings which will house the women’s prison when female prisoners are moved from Pademba Road in a few weeks’ time. This compound was built after the end of the civil war, to house the United Nations’ Special Court for war crimes. The women will be moved into the blocks of cells which housed the war criminals (now incarcerated in the Untied Nations detention facilities in Rwanda). On first inspection these cells seemed ok – quite roomy and comfortable compared to the room I had in my university hall of residence. Then Sabrina informed me that the women will be  sharing 4 to a cell built for 1. That put a different perspective on it.


A typical cell, to be shared by 4 women.   The 2nd cell, with the added luxury of a WC, will probably house mothers with babies.

There is a room designated for the library and another for a classroom. Once these have been decorated and filled with furniture and bookshelves (and books!) I can see them working well. The library is intended to be a sociable space, there will be book clubs and toys for children. The women will be cooking for themselves; the men over the road may have to learn some new skills!


The room designated for the library. The classroom next door is a similar size.

We adjourned to discuss plans and funding and sourcing books. There is one publisher of educational books based in Freetown – MacMillan  – who have so far been reluctant to engage with the project but will give us 50% off if we buy 50 copies of 1 title. So that’s 25 free copies if we buy 25! But we don’t need that many of each title so we will be exploring other possibilities. Thank you to everyone who has supported us via the JustGiving page. We are getting there!

In the evening, Shane, Nick and myself were invited to Sabrina’s house on Signal Hill for dinner. We spent a very pleasant evening on the terrace overlooking the rich green leafy valley below, with a new crescent moon and stars above complemented by the sound of cicadas. We enjoyed a delicious meal in the company of other members of AdvocAid, including the lawyers who represent the women in prison here, often in their own time. It is clear that there is a great deal of work for them to do.

Wednesday morning: Carts, horses, chickens, eggs

March 17, 2010

This morning I had the honour of talking to students and staff at INSLICS, the Institute of Library, Information and Communication Studies at Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone University (the oldest college in Sierra Leone, almost as old as UCL). In a classic example of mistaken assumptions, I had prepared a presentation about my work which I had brought along on a USB memory stick. For which, of course, a computer and projector would be required; standard equipment at a university.
Not, however, a university in a developing country which has recently emerged from nine years of brutal civil war, and which has no resources. None. The presentation wasn’t important; I can talk about my job until the cows come home and anyway, the main purpose of today was to meet and exchange experiences with each other. Boy did I learn something about library and information studies in Africa today!
I was met by John the departmental director who showed me around the department. They have about 200 students on undergraduate and postgraduate courses, 3 computers, and no access to the internet. That’s *no* internet access. In an information science department. In fact, in the whole university: it would be too expensive – $3000 per year in an institute with a total budget of $4000 per year. So the assumptions I had arrived with – e.g.,  that they are sorted for access to electronic health journals here thanks to the HINARI initiative – were out of the window for a start. As for printed resources, the department has its own library: a small office lined with books, not one of which is dated later than 1999. There is also a university library which is currently being restructured, but I was shown around the periodicals and binding departments. The former reminded me of UK universities in the 1970s (again, journal subscriptions ended in 1999; anything newer is a donation) as did much of the rest of the building. The in-house binding service is, interestingly, an income generator for the college.Periodicals


Talking to the 40 or so students – some of whom had interrupted their holiday to attend, which was very flattering – was really interesting. I was asked if, having seen their book stock, I could give them any old books from our libraries – “Even if they are 5 years old they will be better than what we have here”. This goes against everything I am told by librarians and aid agencies in the UK, who maintain it is insulting and counter-productive to send our old stock to developing countries. That’s true, up to a point; but having had this request from the horse’s mouth, I will certainly try to send them anything decent I can get hold of from UCL. And today I was able to give them some books from Cardiff University library which had come with the PHI team.

INLICS Students
I told the students about the prison project, which prompted some interesting responses; some were supportive but I can’t blame others for being less so. I came out here thinking, Everyone will support a prison library when the prisoners have nothing, no access to education, books, computers. Then I get here and discover that the schools, the universities, have no books, no computers. There is no public library service. So it’s not just prisoners who need these things, and prisons may be low on many people’s list of priorities for providing them. I pointed out that many people have ended up in prison through having no access to education, and if we help them they will have a better chance of avoiding a return to jail. But someone pointed out that if we spent our money and efforts helping the schools to get people educated in the first place, not so many would end up in jail.
Answers on a postcard please!

OliverRev. Oliver Harding, Fourah Bay College librarianINSLICS