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Access to Information in Malawi
By the Rev. Dr. Blair D. Bertrand, PCC International Mission Staff to Malawi
For many reading this article, the early days of the Internet started with a very loud screech while the modem tried to make a connection. It always seemed like a minor miracle when it did. Somehow, through phone lines, our machines connected and communicated to other people’s machines. What was amazing then seems quaint now. The phones we carry around have more computing power than NASA had to put people on the moon.
But I can approximate that feeling of connection. One day, I searched the Zomba Theological College (ZTC) library catalogue in Malawi from my office in Ottawa. Over 12,488 km away (give or take a few) I could confirm that the library had a copy of Kwame Bediako’s Theology and Identity: The Impact of Culture upon Christian Thought in the Second Century and in Modern Africa.
From this side of the Atlantic, this discovery isn’t particularly notewor- thy. Whenever we have a question about something, we whip out our phones and “Google it up!” Coldest capital in the world? Easy. Ulaan- Baatar of Mongolia. Google even tells me how long it took to find 4,690,000 (give or take a few thousand) results: 0.57 seconds. Looking up a book and getting a result isn’t notable.
However, in Malawi, this ease of access to information is more strik- ing. Glory Muthala, head librarian at ZTC, has been working on an ambi- tious project for months. Her goal is to take the Microsoft Excel file that has served for years as the library “catalogue” and convert it into a proper library management system. This project will transform a file into a database that many users could use, in person and online. A library is no good unless people can find and use its books. This project aims to make one of the best theological libraries in Malawi accessible to students, fac- ulty and the community.
Glory faces some enormous chal- lenges. Sporadic power outages play havoc with the ancient computers and spotty Internet. Finding afford- able software that does what she wants requires resources and exper- tise. The collection, well maintained but not well documented, is in a cramped space that won’t fit the new books coming in. All books, disserta- tions and journals need to be entered into the system and double-checked. All the while, the library needs to stay open and serve over 100 students and 12 faculty.
The library staff, in fact all 41 em- ployees of ZTC, live in a financially precarious situation. The college of- ten does not meet payroll on time, with the result that people work for months without being paid properly. Everyone, from the principal down to the gardener, does subsistence farm- ing to put food on the table. A project like this seems like a stretch when the basic functions of the school struggle to sustain themselves.
But it is worth it in Glory’s estima- tion. We can never confuse knowl- edge and wisdom. Just because you can Google it does not mean that you should. Education is the long pro- cess of forming people to make wise decisions. Books give voice to more than just facts. Encyclopedias have a place, but deeper thinking requires sustained thinking and writing about why something matters and what it means in the world today.
Books hold that kind of wisdom. Glory wants to ensure that more books get into the hands of students and faculty. It makes them better witnesses to God’s presence in the world. We don’t just want to know about God. We want to know God. We want to know the grace we find in Jesus Christ. We want the power of the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. This lofty goal of knowing God makes books even more important, for each one witnesses in its own way. To let them languish in obscurity is to si- lence a great cloud of witnesses.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada
Zomba Theological College, Malawi.
stands with Glory Muthala. With the help of a fund started by former ZTC faculty member the Rev. Dr. Todd Statham, the PCC has supported her efforts. We have paid for extra staff to do the hard work of data entry, for software recommended by a Ma- lawian IT specialist, for a dedicated computer that can act as a server and for extra data so that the Inter- net can make the work go faster. No
theological library in Canada could do what Glory and her team have done on their budget. But the job is getting done.
A minor miracle—I logged on, searched and found a book that I am teaching on at a small Malawian theological college. Somehow, with Glory’s efforts and the PCC’s ongo- ing support, we are more connected than ever.
Glory Muthala, head librarian at Zomba Theological College in Malawi.
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