Dr Nkem Osuigwe speaks to the COVID-19 pandemic, AfLIA and African librarians

24 May 2020

Dr Nkem Osuigwe speaks to the COVID-19 pandemic, AfLIA and African librarians

By Dr Nkem Osuigwe

Guest blog by Dr Nkem Osuigwe, Human Capacity Development & Training Director, AfLIA

AfLIA is the African Library and Information Associations and Institutions, an international independent non-governmental organization, which serves as the trusted voice of the African library and information community.  It is headquartered in Accra, Ghana.


Initially, COVID-19 seemed to be a far-away threat for Africa. Then, Egypt reported the first confirmed case on 14th February, followed by Nigeria on 27th February and other African countries in quick succession. Information to help people understand how the virus can be contracted and the best ways to guard against it became needful. Then, almost instantaneously, misinformation quickly spread about the virus. Conspiracy theories and bogus claims about cures were being spread all over the continent. Librarians as information professionals were quickly rallied to learn about the virus, stop the spread of misinformation and help people fact check all 'miracle cures' by translating COVID-19 accurate information into local languages for easier and wider access to all, thus busting all fear-triggering and panic-inducing false information and stories about the pandemic that might aid its spread. Librarians in Zambia, South Africa, Namibia, Ghana, Malawi, Nigeria, Benin Republic, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Cameroon among others have translated information about COVD-19 into local languages. This is a huge challenge as some African countries have more than 100 local languages!


Posters used on social media platforms and on AfLIA website to sensitize librarians on COVID-19


Importantly, AfLIA needed to find out the emergency preparedness of African libraries in rendering optimal services online and offline in a pandemic. A survey collating the different responses of libraries to the pandemic, and emergency preparedness of African libraries was undertaken. Snippets of data collected show that many libraries are continuing with service provision through their websites and social media platforms. However, they did not adjudge themselves fully prepared to use only online channels to disseminate information, as most planned for fire or water disasters but never for a pandemic! The full report will be released soon.


The pandemic led to the closure of offices, markets, religious buildings and all spaces for physical human interaction. The implications are huge for learning in Africa. Quality education will not be achieved with schools and libraries closed. Innovative approaches need to be adopted to keep children, students and adults learning. Digital spaces have become quite important as the only avenue open to all. Remote work mode has been activated by many organizations while schools and libraries strive to ensure that learning, interactions and engagements continue online. This is critical for Africa in view of the fact that the continent’s literacy level is below average. This is compounded by the high number of out of school children on the continent. Throw in the poverty level in Africa of children who were in school but have no access to devices with which to access the Internet, or steady electricity supply to listen to classes delivered through radio stations and television channels.


This revelation has caused AfLIA to gear up to drive advocacy on access to higher broadband Internet access for African libraries as a critical factor that undergirds access to information as a basic human right. Absence or loss of digital connection cuts people off from education and opportunities that could lead to transformed lives. There are examples of libraries in other climes that left their Internet facilities on, even while shut down, so that their user communities can come to the car park and use the library Internet to take lessons, do assignments and engage with others online. We look forward to such Internet infrastructure in Africa in the post COVID-19 era.


Beyond access to the Internet, AfLIA is leading librarians to ask salient questions, and seek answers about the content of online spaces/platforms as a majority of humanity migrates online:

   Whose voice?
   Whose values?
   Whose stories?
   Whose meanings?
   Whose knowledge?
   Whose heroes and heroines?


These questions led to the translation of children’s stories by AfLIA member librarians to African languages on the StoryWeaver platform. Almost two hundred stories have been translated into numerous African languages thus far, including Fati and the Green Snake, the story of a little girl who lives in northern Ghana.


A physical workshop was also quickly held between 3 and 6 March  2020,  in Abuja, Nigeria, before national and regional lockdowns, to teach librarians how to translate stories into their local languages on the African StoryBook platform. Librarians are encouraged to help parents and children discover and explore the two sites to access children’s stories.


In addition to translating children’s books for early literacy development, AfLIA is also working with the Wikimedia Foundation to train African librarians to enhance African voices on Wikipedia, which is a vital source of free knowledge and is increasingly becoming significant in online research ecosystems. The training is focused on enabling African librarians to close information gaps about African scholars, academics, scientists, etc. in a synchronized manner during the first African Librarians Week – 24-30th May 2020. Already, more than 220 librarians have signed up on the dashboard for the week. Information on how to sign up, participate as well as resources to assist librarians can all be found at https://web.aflia.net/aflibwk/.


When AfLIA entered into an agreement with OER Africa in 2019, no one had any idea of an oncoming pandemic. With the closure of schools and the world seemingly in a pause mode due to the COVID-19 pandemic, learning still needs to go on. AfLIA believes that when librarians understand how to help teachers identify, adapt/create and publish Open Educational Resources (OER), then institutions of higher learning will have resources for their students in times like these.  They will thus be able to widen their scope of understanding in their disciplines, have more access to relevant materials and, be able to share and collaborate with others. The OER training for librarians will be rolled out before the end of June.


AfLIA is continuously engaging African librarians during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that access to information for quality education and the promotion of cultural identity goes on. Librarianship skills are also being updated to operate adroitly in online spaces. AfLIA also has its eyes on the post COVID-19 period, which will most likely require librarians to assist their user communities more in digital workforce development.