Need to create cultural space for African students in Kerala: Activist Somy Solomon

Somy Solomon, who started the first library in a Tanzanian village, was at the Loka Kerala Sabha to present concerns of expatriates in African countries.
Need to create cultural space for African students in Kerala: Activist Somy Solomon
Need to create cultural space for African students in Kerala: Activist Somy Solomon
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At the far-end table of a nearly empty café in Thiruvananthapuram, Somy Solomon sits, sipping her dry ginger coffee. It has been a really busy three days in the capital for her, attending the Loka Kerala Sabha (LKS) in the Legislative Assembly. Somy, who famously created the first library in a Tanzanian village, has been nominated by the Kerala government to be a member of the LKS the first time the event was conducted, in January 2018.

LKS 2020 has just got over on Friday afternoon. It has been initiated by the Kerala government as a platform for the cultural, socio-political and economic integration of non-resident Keralites. And Somy, as a representative of the African country Tanzania, has been active in making sure there was a delegation from Africa in the second edition of the event. “There were delegates from eight African countries this time. The issues faced by one African country would not be the same as another. It will be eight different issues and this had to be presented,” says Somy, who left her home in Kollam to join her husband in Tanzania eight years ago. 

Somy with Team Ubuntu

One of the biggest concerns is the lack of access to African countries, Somy wrote, in a paper she presented at the event. “If someone from Kerala got a job in an African country, there is often no way to find out about the place they were going to. There is no Indian embassy in some of these countries. The Malayali associations of all the African countries are not registered with NORKA (Department of Non Resident Keralites Affairs).”

She says that there has been a Malayali community in Africa even before Kerala was formed as a state. “But none of it is documented. And India has had trade relations with Africa even before the British colonisation (of India). Yet the Indian community lives isolated in African countries. Unlike in European countries where Indians are keen to imbibe their lifestyle or culture, in Africa they stay alienated, even though there have been centuries of interaction between the two countries.”

Somy especially adores Tanzanian women who are full of energy

Somy’s proposal to the LKS also suggests the creation of a cultural space for the African students in Kerala. She has seen and enjoyed and been a part of their rich cultural space in Tanzania. “They dance for every occasion, be it marriage or death. There’s so much rhythm in their life.”

She especially adores the Tanzanian women who are full of life and energy. “There is a certain body politics. We don’t respect our bodies the way they do.”

When it was time to build the library that Somy had taken so much effort for, women worked as much as men. It was all gender-neutral tasks. After their daily work, the fisherfolk and the farmers would come to build the Kichankani library which got inaugurated on August 15, 2018, four years after the book collection had begun. “I was sure that it should be a community project. I am not from an NGO and from the beginning it was understood that there shall be no financial dealings. We had to build the building ourselves. They’d bring some planks from construction sites. A couple of Malayalis contributed old doors. Another funded for the window grills. That’s the only funding that happened. The rest were all locally available materials.”

Kichankani Library and Community Centre

Somy knows that they are not going to turn into overnight readers just because there is a library now at Kichankani, the village she brought books to. After moving to Dar es Salaam, 25 miles away from the village, Somy began writing about the villagers and their lives as Facebook posts and as a column on a Malayalam portal. Someone asked her, why not build a library there. It became an online campaign before she knew it. Books came from everywhere – not just Kerala, but Malayalis in Gulf countries and Singapore too pooled in. About 7,000 books came to Kichankani, and were kept in the space offered by a hotel till the library got built. “It is very difficult to introduce a reading culture. They will take their time but I am sure it would be part of the next generation,” Somy says.

She got one of the men, Mwandu Moosa, who had studied upto class 7, to learn the librarian course and get some basic computer training. There's a team Ubuntu now, led by a girl called Zaituni, to look after the library. Moosa is the librarian. 

Last year has been especially good for Kichankani. The villagers have at last got electricity connection and water. 

When water finally came to Kichankani

Somy has in the meanwhile stumbled on another idea to connect the cultures of India and Africa. "It actually came from a rude remark while I suggested we should celebrate traditional African costumes. The remark brought this thought: why not put African prints on handloom. It became a project called Afrind (Africa and India) and is in the initial stages now," she says. 

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