A Cultural Revolution for Yemen

GlobalChangeMakers Program Aims to Promote Literacy, Access to Books

This is a group of young, passionate and determined Yemenis of which you never hear enough. They don’t make the headlines of the international news, yet they are involved in a very important mission: recruiting youth and changing their lives, armed only with books.

Knowledge has often been compared with power, and who’s more in need of knowledge then a child? The GlobalChangeMakers is a youth international organization; in Yemen they are bringing forth a campaign that aims to promote not only a mere habit, but a lasting love for reading.

They specifically target children to build a generation of readers, learners, discoverers and ultimately, achievers.  The GCM emerged in 2008 at the World Economic Forum. Students were chosen from different parts of the globe to gather, discuss and develop solutions to tackle various issues in their home countries.

GCM is a British Council program which has its headquarters in Switzerland.  The group is internally specialized in advocacy, research, and awareness programs. The MENA region GCM meets every 6-7 months to attend workshops, training sessions, and exchange experiences and solutions.

The Yemeni team has chosen to promote education and reading. A workshop in Jordan encouraged the young leaders-to-be to develop their skills and effectively manage their projects. Hitham Al Doubaibi, financial manager of GCM in Yemen, explained that their first goal was to open a Public Library for children of international standards.  The library is to have a rich collection of books, full-time intern, theatre, audio-video facilities, and a design appealing to children.

They initiated the “I Love My Book” campaign. In 2009 for the first phase of the project they decided to collaborate with schools and open or furnish libraries inside the schools. Kifah Abdul Majed Al-Areeqi, from the Capital Secretariat, explained that the selection of the schools was based on the existing need of funds, the awareness and care of the administration to develop their libraries, and the presence of motivated and trustworthy bookkeepers.

Suad Hassan Al-Yafie, of the Capital Secretariat, observed that in the previous year only schools situated in the center of the capital were chosen while those in the peripheral areas were excluded.  In the second year, the project plans to include them as well.

Evaluating the results of the first phase of ‘I Love My Book” program, Mrs. Al Areeqi noted that there was not only an increase of children in libraries, but also the number of them who returned and borrowed books was on the rise.

As Soad Al-Arhabi, a GCM member, observed, the availability of books and readable material increased, especially thanks to the Internet, but what is lacking in Yemen is the recognition of reading as a fundamental activity for progress. Curiously, being an assiduous reader or demonstrating intelligence is perceived negatively; mostly as a sign of arrogance. In fact “muthaqqaf,” meaning educated, learned, intellectual” is used as a joking insult.

This could give a new dimension to understanding the 47% illiteracy rate in the country. “Reading is also discouraged because it’s said to endanger one’s sight…whilst hours of computer, play stations, and movie watching is perfectly acceptable,” commented Soad and Hitham. Generally speaking, it is rare to find those who reads for simple pleasure or to broaden one’s knowledge in a subject not directly related to their fields of study or job.

This is well reflected in the 27th Sana’a Fair Book when a member of the Ministry of Culture reported most buyers to be males who purchased texts for study or work.

Mrs. Al-Areeqi also stated that some school libraries, despite being well supplied, lacked stories for children, or suffered from a scarcity of textbooks that matched with their level of understanding or range of interests. Mohammed Yahya Al-Shahethi, a GCM, remarked, “We often speak about spreading reading habits among children, but honestly we want every single person to be influenced by this campaign.”

Also, GCM has directed their efforts in explaining the value of books to mothers and fathers too. “The truth is that our campaign cannot succeed fully unless parents take responsibility and cooperate with us”, affirmed Ehlam Al Gohaly, the British Council project supervisor for GCM.

“My message goes to the businessmen/women and important people in our countries: anyone who truly loves Yemen and cares for its development would support and fund this campaign,” stated Hitham. He also added that there were young people willing to carry on this project at its best but that they often lacked the means to effectively do so.

“In other countries is not unusual that entire libraries are funded by a particular individual or company, but this is not the case in Yemen yet.”

There is good news, though. The GCMs announced that a location for the public library was chosen to be next to the Sabafon headquarters, on Zubairy street. The opening would need an additional 6 to 12 months.

Mrs. Al-Areeqi and Al-Yafie admitted the great demands of the task but expressed their desire that more groups taking interest in this kind of initiative would appear.

“A very personal reason I decided to join this project is because I felt it would change me first of all. I felt the responsibility to gain more knowledge and compelled to share with others what I learned”, confessed Soad.