Libraries on wheels spread the words

Bernadette Cheventon, founder of Soutien á L’Initiative Privée pour L’Aide á la Reconstruction.
Bernadette Cheventon, founder of Soutien á L’Initiative Privée pour L’Aide á la Reconstruction. Heng Chivoan

On Wednesday afternoons in Kandal village, a green van arrives in front of a house and is immediately swarmed by children – from toddlers to teenagers – shouting “Here comes the library! Here comes the library!”

Yea Chunly, the driver and a mobile librarian of Soutien á L’Initiative Privée pour L’Aide á la Reconstruction (Sipar), takes several boxes filled with hundreds of books from the back of the van, along with mats for the children to sit on. He has only been at the organisation for three months – a blip in its 35 years of work promoting literacy and education in Cambodia, and its 17 years taking books to hard to reach corners of the country.

After the children settle down, Chunly begins with a folktale – a story about a foolish tiger trying to catch fish by imitating a hawk, only to be mocked by a nearby fisherman. The children laugh at the story, and the gestures made by Chunly that accompany his narration. Eventually, they move on to group reading, drawing, painting and other educational games.

Chunly heads back to his office in Phnom Penh at 4pm, and the children will have to wait another week for the next session, but the library leaves behind books for the students to read in the interim.

Va Kimhorng, 10, says the Sipar mobile library has been helping her improve her reading, on top of what she learns at her school. “I love reading, but my parents can only afford to buy a few books for me,” she says.

For 11-year-old Bun Sokchan, Wednesdays stand out because of Sipar’s visit.

“I want to be a teacher, and I will tell those stories to my students,” Sokchan said.

The effort is the brain-child of Bernadette Cheventon, a French philanthropist, who founded the organisation in 1982 because she was shocked by the hardship suffered by the Cambodian people under the Khmer Rouge. The organisation was originally created to assist in the reception and integration of Cambodian refugees in France.

“It was an unspeakable tragedy of a nation,” Bernadette said. “From the moment I saw the looks on the refugees’ faces, I know I have to help the country as much as I can.”

In 1991, Sipar was invited by Cambodia’s Ministry of Education to assist the country in piecing back together its education sector. Apart from teacher training and curriculum development, the organisation offered some libraries and created a local publishing house to promote readership in Cambodia. Nevertheless, the books could not reach remote areas, so Cheventon strategised ways to bring books to everyone in the country.

Sipar’s mobile library was created in 2000, amid financial constraints and lack of human resources. With only one van and several hundred books, the few Sipar librarians travelled as far as they could to give children the chance to read. To their surprise, many did not even know what a book was.

“It was a very hard time,” said Sin Sothea, Sipar’s library program coordinator. “Yet, we were trying our best, and we were glad to learn that many children love reading. After so many years, we believe that many have benefited from our mobile libraries.”

With contributions from donors, the innovative library has grown slowly in 17 years. Currently, Sipar has seven vans circulating in Phnom Penh and another six provinces, with thousands of books of different genres. In distant places inaccessible to large vehicles, such as mountainous areas, the organisation sends out its librarians on motorbikes with books stuffed in backpacks.

According to Cheventon, Sipar has a long-term goal of expanding its library services throughout the country, and is committed to turning every Cambodian child into a book lover, yet it still needs help from donors to fulfil that ambition.

“Sipar will leave when there is zero illiteracy rate in Cambodia,” she said. “Before that goal is reached, I might be dead, but the other members of Sipar will carry my legacy.”