Packing storybooks in a pink plastic folder that will be delivered on that particular Saturday morning, Ms Rosey Sembatya informs me that comic magazines are the most popular reading materials among younger clientele who subscribe to her Malaika Children’s Mobile Library.
The mobile library that delivers storybooks to kids on motorbike taxis commonly known as boda bodas in Kampala and parts of Wakiso District was founded by Ms Sembatya in 2014.

“The comics are the most popular items. I think kids from say the age of seven like conversations, so the fact that one character is talking to another tends to appeal to them. We have a long waiting list of comics on demand by kids. For example, Asterix, Tintin and many adaptations from super heroes such as Ben 10 and Thor, and movies such as Nemo,” Ms Sembatya says.

“Our challenge is that comics are very expensive to buy in local bookshops or even order from broad. The sad thing is that we don’t have those with African characters and adaptations from our folktales. These are not readily available on the market,” she says in an interview in her library on Teachers’ House in Kampala.

Preferences
According to Ms Sembatya, the next popular reading materials are adventures, fairy tales and dairies. “The girls prefer the diary story form with female characters that they can identify with.”
“The book that I enjoyed reading the most is Pinocchio (Ladybird, Read It Yourself Series, Level 4). That book is about a boy called Pinocchio, who tells lies and does not go to school,” says eight-year-old Leslie Owor. “What I have learnt from reading that book is not to tell lies.

And it is good to listen to your parents and go to school whenever they tell you to so,” Owor, a Primary Four pupil, adds.
Owor’s young brother Kent Odoi enjoys reading I Know an Old Mzee Who Swallowed a Fly by Catherine Kreauter.

Delivery schedule
“The old man ate a crocodile, snake, chimpanzee, hippo, lizard and crested crane. In the end, his stomach was swollen like a big balloon,” six-year-old Odoi says.

“The lesson I learnt is that ‘never open your mouth for you may swallow a fly’,” Odoi adds.
Owor and Odoi are pupils at Taibah International School in Bwebajja, 14kms from Kampala. Their parents have subscribed to the Malaika Children’s Mobile Library that delivers storybooks at their home in Bwebajja every Friday.

The mobile library delivers three books every Friday to its clients at an annual subscription fee. Parents can borrow from a catalogue of about 2,000 storybooks.

“When we started, we were charging Shs100,000 per year. Now we are charging Shs304,000, including delivery fees, annually. And this includes three storybooks every week. We deliver on Fridays so that the kids can read over the weekend. Our boda boda riders usually have to follow a particular route to deliver the storybooks to different clients every Friday morning between 9am and 1pm,” Ms Sembatya says.

Asked why she chose the boda boda as means of delivering the books, Ms Sembatya, a teacher of English, says: “Boda bodas are quick, can reach the least accessible places, can park in the smallest of spaces and they are quite restless [so they don’t have much time for banter]. Because our business model strictly delivers the story books, we are mindful that we do it without taking much time.”
On what influenced her into starting the mobile library, she says: “My strongest influence was that I wanted my niece and nephews to read but I could not afford to buy them storybooks so often. I realised that there could be parents and aunts who would wish that their children experience storybooks but they cannot afford the books as well. I also asked myself what happens to these books after the children have read them and can recite them off head. So, I thought of how we could have a book benefit at least five children before it is put away, and the idea of the mobile library came to life.”
Ms Sembatya says the model of the library is weaved around selling convenience.

Flexibility
“We use a lot of convenience-enhancing tools such as WhatsApp, Facebook, MTN Mobile Money, Airtel Money and boda boda. Once we ask you some questions and gauge your determination to get the children reading, then you pay the subscription fees, and share the delivery address. The storybooks start coming to that delivery address every Friday,” she says.
“I read on the weekends when my mother brings new storybooks. But I can read a book any day during my school holidays. Reading these books teaches me how to pronounce words properly and learning how to spell,” Owor says.

“When I read, I plan to create (write) my own books. Because if I do that, I will get lots of money and people will like the books I write. If I have lots of money, I can pay my kid’s school fees, food and build a house,” Owor says. He wants to be an electrical engineer so as to solve power problems.

On his part, Odoi says: “I don’t like reading much. I enjoy when my mum reads for me because I don’t want to read books with many words. I prefer my tablet which has very many games like Octopia.”

“I don’t like school because school is boring. And they always shout at you to finish your homework,” she adds. He says he wants to become a soldier so as to carry guns and drive tanks.

As to the benefits of her library so far, Ms Sembatya observes: “First, the children have got used to a consistent presence of storybooks at home. This has made even the busiest child look at pictures at least or read a page or two. Also the children write to tell us of what they would like to read next. This means reading has become part of their lives and that is amazing.”

“Parents have shared that the teachers keep commending the improvement in reading of our readers, and this has been seen in their reading marks that have been improving steadily,” she adds.

The mother of Owor and Odoi, Ms Tinah Annet Wandera, is full of praise for the Malaika Children’s Mobile Library.

What parents say
“This library is a saving grace for low income earning parents like me. Kids are supposed to read continuously and yet the books are very expensive in Kampala. For example, if your child reads five books every week that will be very expensive for you. So, if you are with the Malaika library, you do not have to look for Shs50, 000 to buy new storybooks every week.”

Ms Wandera says she has to forego other expenditures in order to invest in the Malaika library.

“I would like to compare myself with a parent who can take her kid to the beach and KFC restaurant every week, and can afford to pay for the child’s coaching every school holiday - but chooses not to buy storybooks for the kid. She can afford expensive hair styles ranging from Shs100,000 to 300,000 per month. So, I have foregone all these luxuries to buy storybooks. In that way, I know I will not pay for coaching in my children’s later classes.”

Testimonies
Conrad Akesigaruhanga was subscribed to the Malaika library by his grandfather Yorokamu Abainenamar three years ago.

“When Rosey told me about her idea of a children’s library, I found it interesting and an innovative idea. I thought of supporting her enterprise as one of her clients. The good thing is that I live with my grandson whom I thought could benefit,” Mr Abainenamar recalls.
“When I talked to Akesigaruhanga, he liked the idea of getting books to read. And I trusted Rosey’s word that she would give him books of his age. I brought the first batch home. He was in Primary Six preparing to go to Primary Seven then. He loved the first batch and he has been a keen reader ever since. Initially, he had problems because the books were short that he could read one in a short time. This meant that there was nothing for him to read from Monday to Friday,” he adds.

“I think Akesigaruhanga has liked the programme. He is quite disciplined because when he gets to do something, he makes sure to complete it. He has divided his reading time between Bible studies, school homework and Malaika books,” Mr Abainenamar, a retired economist, adds.
“What I have liked with the Malaika Children’s Mobile Library is that they give us books that are appropriate to our age and are interesting. The service delivery is good and on time. Every Friday afternoon books are delivered to our home,” Akesigaruhanga says.

Ms Wandera says she has enrolled her two sons on the Malaika library for close to three years now and which has resulted in noticeable changes among her children.

“Owor’s exposure has widened through reading and he is now a top student in his class. He can now literally read everything. He does his homework independently because he comprehends extended text. The teachers don’t associate his success in class to reading. They usually say he is a clever child and yet he struggled with simple homework before he became a good reader. And this is a result of my investment in the Malaika library because we were in fact worried that he would never complete simple school homework,” she reveals.

“For Odoi, he does not like to read and prefers tablets and television. We read with him dramatically and his expression has improved. I hope with time, he will pick up the real interest in reading because in this house, reading is a must,” Ms Wandera adds.

“We want to introduce them to lots of literature and variety. For example, if a kid is 10 years and he or she has not read any of the classics such as Gulliver’s Travels, Oliver Twist and David Copperfield, then we ensure that he or she gets these books. We introduce our readers who are 10 years old and above to books such as Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe and Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,” Ms Sembatya says.

“As we package the books, we are mindful that the readers experience those that they can relate with and blend several genres. This includes books about Africa and those by Ugandan authors. Some parents prefer religious materials for their kids,” she adds.

Making a difference
“Our model is reading for enjoyment so that even if a child has one minute from his or her playtime or school work or even looking at pictures in a book, it is just fine for us. This is the stage when they are picking interest in reading, and for toddlers just to touch a book is an achievement in itself,” Ms Sembatya says.

“The other reason we are doing this is that we only have up to seven years to build a reading culture in a child. So the earlier we start, the better,” she adds.

“We would wish to start with pregnant mothers reading stories aloud so that the children in the wombs start getting interest in stories at that stage. They can hear and the brain is growing,” Ms Sembatya further adds.

As to the challenges that her library has encountered so far, she observes: “Many of our readers nibble at the books, but because we would like them to touch and feel the books, we know that that is part of a process of developing a relationship with books. The older children take the books to school and share. Many times the books get lost. We advise parents of the older children to get money from their piggy banks and replace the lost books. Learning how to handle books builds character.”

“Of course books are very expensive. Maintaining the affordability of the subscription and the payment of the delivery staff requires that someone goes without a salary. With more subscriptions, this can get better so we are working towards registering more children,” Ms Sembatya says.

Tomorrow, we dwell on the importance of the storybook towards nurturing a reading and writing culture.