Published: 07th October 2020
The light in Kichankani: How Somy Solomon build a library in faraway Tanzania
Somy Solomon is the activist, researcher and social worker who build the first library in the Tanzanian village of Kichankani. Check out her story
In July 2019, Somy Solomon left a little piece of herself in Tanzania. In a small village, less than 30 kilometres away from the city of Dar es Salaam, what she has left behind in her home of seven years continues to grow and evolve in the shape of Kichankani Library. Somy worked with the villagers to set up their first library, thanks to an extraordinary social media campaign and, of course, support of the people.
Born and brought up in Kollam, Somy grew up in the field. Her first taste of social work was at the age of 12 when she compared cases of tuberculosis in two colonies in the district for the Children’s Science Congress. Years later, after completing her Master's in History from Madras Christian College, her plans to do a PhD were briefly interrupted when she got married and moved to Tanzania in 2013. But it did not take long for her to find another subject to research — the issues of domestic workers in Indian extractories.
BOOKED IN: In 2018, Somy worked with the people of the village to build a library
The 34-year-old says, “The way Africa is spoken about outside and what it really is is worlds apart. What is described as primitive and underdeveloped continues to progress daily and I was so fortunate to have witnessed that up close.” Since her husband was a hotelier, the couple moved from the city to a nearby village with little connection to the outside world but for an internet connection. “We were living inside a forest with the Indian Ocean ahead as far as the eye could see,” she explains, “Here, I began teaching the children of the housekeeping staff. I began by learning Swahili from them and teaching them a bit of English in the process. The children enjoyed it so much that they began coming back to the hotel with more of their friends. And soon, I had to approach the village officials for a space where I could teach.”
Somy began teaching the children under a mango tree in the centre of the village. As an outsider, she had to hold continuous meetings with the village officials and undergo immigration checks to account for her foreign nationality. In 2013, books were much more expensive in the country where local publishing houses were scarce. After various requests, the village authorities agreed to help her teach children up to the seventh grade. So, she created Team Ubuntu. Students were divided according to their ages and taught basic language lessons through YouTube. She would share all her experiences with the world through Facebook. Support began pouring in from all over the world with donated books and resources. In 2018, Somy worked with the people of the village to build the library on their own. Somy left Tanzania last July after handing everything over to the village chairman. She says, “English has opened up a whole new world for them. I could even slip in a few Hindi and Malayalam videos for the children because they enjoyed everything.”
Back home in Kerala, Somy has dedicated her efforts to a range of other causes. Initially, she worked with a team pushing to build libraries for indigenous communities in parts of Kerala. Currently, she is also working on her PhD, which aims to study India’s long history with Africa, “Our history with Africa is not documented. Our countries had traded with each other along the Indian Ocean and many slaves had settled in Kerala and had even gone on to become rulers. But I’m still working on the proposal because slaves don’t write books, only slaveowners do. So I’m trying to find our forgotten histories from between the lines.”