dcsimg Literacy in Sierra Leone - Ramboll UK Limited

Supporting learning and literacy in Sierra Leone

Ramboll's commitment to deliver engineering services free of charge for a library project in Sierra Leone
has led to a much larger project that is helping to establish literacy facilities throughout the country.

Equiano Centre – a new library

When asked what development project they would most wish for, the citizens of the town of Waterloo in Sierra Leone replied without hesitation – a library. They might have chosen any number of things: their water supply was poor, their sanitation system primitive. But they believed education was the key to recovering from the civil war they had lived through, which ended in 2002.

Former British Member of Parliament Claire Curtis Thomas was impressed. A recent twinning project between a town in her constituency named Waterloo, with the Sierra Leone community of the same name, had provided the impetus for the formation of the Waterloo Partnership. She approached engineers at Ramboll to seek support, and shortly after we signed up to coordinate the project's entire design process for no fee.

Literacy projects in Sierra Leone

The library was given the name Equiano Centre in honour of the former slave Olaudah Equiano, whose 1789 autobiography depicts the horrors of slavery and had helped influence British lawmakers to abolish the slave trade. A charity was formed to oversee the project. The Construction and Development Partnership (CODEP ... www.codep.co.uk) included several Ramboll employees on its board of trustees.

A wider project

However, it quickly became clear that more than a building was needed. Where were the books to come from? Who would run the library? How would it impact the community – 70% of whom were functionally illiterate – and how would those who most needed the library be able to access what it had to offer?

CODEP expanded its remit to address these broader challenges. With the help of The Times newspaper, CODEP launched the Build on Books appeal. Since 2008 they have sent more than 200,000 donated books to Sierra Leone where they have been used to set up 52 mini-libraries in schools around the Waterloo area. This was just the first step in an ambitious plan to embed a culture of literacy more broadly throughout the region. Since then, CODEP has supported training for new librarians, a literacy festival and a survey of students' literacy skills – the first such survey to be conducted in Sierra Leone since the war.

Ramboll engineers worked closely with architect Nick Willson to design Phase 1 of the Equiano Centre to suit the overall development goals. The idea was it should serve as a hub where the regional literacy strategy could be planned and implemented. Phase 1 is a single-storey concrete frame structure that houses a children’s library and a book sorting depository, where donated books from around the world are sorted and dispatched to centres elsewhere.

More recently, London Mining has come on board to provide additional funding and impetus to the scheme. A new library is planned for Lunsar town that is to replicate the Waterloo model. And Phase 2 of the Equiano Centre starts on site in 2012. It will include five additional buildings to house children's, adult, health related, technical and IT library facilities.

It is an example of how looking at a problem from a holistic perspective can lead to a deeper and more long lasting solution. From a simple library building project, this scheme has grown into a broader programme of initiatives aimed at promoting a culture of literacy throughout the region. For Ramboll engineers, it has been a practical exercise in looking at how building design, when it's fully integrated with long term social planning, can make a real difference in people's lives.

"The measure for our success is how much the libraries are actually being used," comments Sebastian Wood, an Associate at Ramboll and also CODEP's Chair of the Project Delivery Committee. "Last time I was out there I visited all the newly stocked libraries and you could see it in the library registers: page after page of records showing books being withdrawn and returned."