If today were 12 January, 2010, the world would be about to stop speechless on hearing news of the earthquake that would have destroyed Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti. The images would be heart-breaking, which would not stop an even greater shock following estimates that, in only a few minutes, 222 thousand people would have lost their lives and 2 million their homes. And if estimates were made with the heart, the calculation would be that all 9 million Haitians had been left wounded by the fear and uncertainty for their own lives, as well as for those of their friends and relatives.
The story of this earthquake would not fit into a book, but it is reading itself that is helping the Haitian population overcome it. This is because Libraries Without Borders is launching mobile libraries to circulate through the country's capital supplying books and, in doing so, offering a means of access to information and knowledge.
Operating in countries in the Americas, Africa and Asia, projects like these are carried out in developing countries and those left at risk from disasters and conflicts. In Haiti, the organisation acts in partnership with the country's National Library, which is being reconstructed, the Haitian National Bureau for Books and the Foundation for Knowledge and Freedom (FOKAL).
When faced with catastrophes, governments and international organisations join forces to distribute medicine, water, food, clothes and shelter for victims. However, people's basic needs extend beyond their bodies to their minds, spirits, hearts or wherever they have chosen to keep their feelings about what they have gone through. Badis Boussouar, Head of Communications at Libraries Without Borders, explains the role of reading in this context:
For Libraries Without Borders, there is no question that organizations and governments must devote the majority of their efforts to promoting the physical wellbeing of disaster victims. But more attention should be given to nourishing the mind as a second measure to help victims cope with catastrophe and move forward. Books and expression help sustain intellectual stimulation and promote self-worth and resilience in times of crisis. Through books, computers or training, access to information and cultural resources empowers individuals and gives them the tools to reconstruct what has been lost.
The organisation's mobile libraries have been inspired by the book buses that exist in other countries, especially in rural areas, and have arisen from the sad fact that most of Haiti's libraries were destroyed by the earthquake, along with 4,000 schools. 80% of the schools in Port-au-Prince and 60% of the schools in the south and west of the country were destroyed or damaged, according to data from the Disasters Emergency Committee.
They have been named BiblioTaptaps in homage to the typical local taxis. The first was launched in July 2012, and two more will be launched by this March. As can been seen in the video below [fr], the project mobilises Haitians of all ages, especially children, who are often the most affected.
While travelling through the Port-au-Prince neighbourhoods, each BiblioTaptap carries 400 books, including romances, poetry collections and plays, with half of them in the native language. In addition to literary topics, there are books on history, politics, economics and culture, both Haitian and from around the world. Users of the service also have access to photography catalogues, books on the arts and dictionaries, among other things. Books are chosen daily by the activity leaders based on the scheduled itinerary, so that reading is always simulating, whether for children participating in BiblioTaptap activities, youth wanting to better understand their country's reality in order to change it, or even adults or the elderly seeking information on health or how to care for their communities or the environment.
Book donations are welcome, but care is taken not to harm local book economies by providing excessive amounts of books.
THE URGENCY OF READING
This all forms part of the belief in the power of books to provide basic self-care knowledge along with other vital information for overcoming the trauma caused by the earthquake, which naturally, can neither be forgotten nor rectified in such a short space of time.
UNICEF supports education in post-disaster contexts and collaborates with Libraries Without Borders in Haiti.
The recent Libraries Without Borders initiative called The Urgency of Reading reaffirms the organisation's conviction that books and reading are an important means for victims to overcome this type of catastrophe. They appeal to international organisations involved in humanitarian work to: “1) expand reading, cultural and educational programs, which activate the human spirit and help individuals cope with trauma; and 2) make the provision of access to information and books a priority for international humanitarian relief”.
They can be helped in this endeavour by signing an international petition, as Tzvetan Todorov, Mario Vargas Llosa, Zygmunt Bauman, J.M. Coetzee, Robert Darnton, Roger Chartier and many others have already done.
It makes you think about what book would help in this situation. Maybe someone in Bangladesh is thinking of giving the Haitian people a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, perhaps someone in Russia is considering something by Maiakovski, but the first thing that came to my mind was a verse by the Brazilian poet Manuel Bandeira, which will be amazing when true for the entire world: Belo belo belo tenho tudo quanto quero (Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful, I have everything I want). In the meantime, recognition of the importance of books and reading in situations involving natural disasters and calamities is increasing. Queens Library, for example, is offering books to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in the USA. To bring them hope, Walt Whitman.