Kamaliza Reads Library collects books by Black Women writers for people to read. Meet Rwanda’s first all-black women library.

You are going to find all kinds of books by Black women authors at the Kamaliza Reads Libray in Kigali, Rwanda. Named after a great female Rwandan female writer, some of the collections include books by Helen Oyeyemi, Toni Morrison and Nnedi Okorafor.

Sistah Circle Collective, a group of passionate women running it, describes the library as “radical, love and revolution.” They speak more about it, boldly.

What is the story behind the name, Kamaliza Reads?

SCC The library is named after an iconic Rwandan woman artist, the late Annonciata Mutamuriza (stage name Kamaliza).

Kamaliza is vital to the story of Rwanda, Rwandan women, and Rwandan art. As a woman who has helped us memorialize, materialize Rwanda’s liberation history through oral history, I think she challenges what we portray today as “theory”, which oftentimes silences or erases the important ways we document lives as Africans.

A number of things: what the library stands for, the choice of name, the books, and having this as a women-managed space are all correlated. There is some thought put into this.   

We wanted the name to match the politics of the library and be rooted in communal understandings of liberation. 

We also wanted the name to be a continuation of what we hope the library is doing- highlighting Black women and their work and lastly a name that challenges Western ways of knowing and producing knowledge.

Photo courtesy: Kamaliza Reads

Kamaliza’s voice echoes in the library in what ways?

SCC She reminds us that there are multiple ways of organizing, knowing, and creating knowledge. She reminds us how important African ways of knowing, rooted in Oral histories are valid and necessary.

That work produced through art- song, dance, painting, proverbs, stories, etc. are theory and deserve a space that doesn’t analyze them through the lens of whiteness.

She reminds us that when we go back to this (or works produced by us), we will always hear from our ancestors that we have always been here. And that’s the main take away from the name and this space- that we, Black women; cis, trans, queer folks, non-binary and GNC- we have always been here. 

What gap does Kamaliza Reads meant to fill?

SCC When growing up, some of us were avid readers, picking up any book, a comic, a novel, instructions on a box, anything. However, one thing we all have in common is that we didn’t relate too much to the stories we were reading. 

It’s only years later that picking up Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s or Yaa Gyasi’s book showed us we have always been reading other people’s stories. 

Photo courtesy: Kamaliza Reads

It is highly significant to read stories written for us, to see ourselves in book characters.

SCC Yes. There is a strong sense of confidence, love, peace, and relief that one feels when represented. Up until now, there are a few libraries in Rwanda, some of them not being easily accessible to all. 

These libraries do not have enough black women authored books. That was our motivation. For black girls to grow up reading about people that look like them, that talk like them, that feel like them and that live like them. For black women experiences to be documented and not left in translation like our ancestors’.

For black women’s works and stories to never be forgotten and/or erased. This is what primarily motivated us to set up an All Black Women Library and essentially make it easily accessible to all.

We just knew for the revolution to happen and be sustained, we had to have more people educated or politically aware. And there is no point at all in gatekeeping these resources.

Part of this work is to make sure we all understand the various issues at hand, how they are created, that is their histories, how they are maintained, and so on.

This is a powerful vision, how was that experience of bringing it to life?

SCC The initiative was dreamed of during the summer of 2019. 

Dreaming of a labor of love like this is work in itself. Putting it into words and then the action is another. It took time to fund-raise, we made a whole campaign for that via gofundme to get the first books we ever used. We fund-raised on socials and also during our free awareness events. 

Everything we do is community given. We made sure to communicate the vision of the library and encouraged folks to donate if they felt this was a project, they felt was necessary. We opened Kamaliza Reads in January actually—it’s funny a lot of people think it was launched in October. We just had to close down because of COVID-19 and then re-opened in a new location after spaces were allowed to reopen. 

Photo courtesy: Kamaliza Reads

How does the library operate, for instance in the collection of the books?

SCC The library operates on a community grassroots fund-raising way. Everything we have is donated by the community and those who support our community. 

The library space is donated by a Black woman and the books are donated or the money is. The time of the curators and volunteers is also donated. We wanted to make sure we could expand so we developed a way that borrowing would be accessible to most/ if not all. 

There is a sliding scale fee for borrowing a book (students and working folk friendly) and an option for a monthly subscription. You can also pay for (donate) someone else’s subscription to help flatten the curve. We recognize that even though the fee is low, it doesn’t mean everyone can afford it so we still want to be vigilant about that. 

The most someone can borrow a book for is a month (renewals are upon agreement). Again, we want to recognize that the library is run by young Black girls donating their time and are passionate and learning about feminist politics and all this is made possible through them.

What was the process like in collecting books?

SCC We made our book wish list available and made a book suggestion drive too so the books we planned to buy were displayed and if you wanted to donate some, you could. The money we got, we bought the books and shipped them to Rwanda with the help of friends and comrades of the collective. 

Another way we were able to get funds to buy books is through other community organizations fundraising for us. That support, to this day, melts our hearts. We also had collective members across the globe who were able to receive donations via shipment also easily. 

One thing for sure we wish was different and would make everything easier was if shipping wasn’t such a struggle. Sometimes, shipping a book costs 10 times the amount you buy it. So, when you think about it, it becomes such a loss. It’s for this reason we usually just do two shipments throughout the year. It helps us save on shipment and buy more books. 

Photo courtesy: Kamaliza Reads

What many more books do you have on the shelves? 

SCC Some books include Bell Hooks, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, Alice Walker, Chimamanda Ngozi, Buchi Emecheta, Ifi Amadiume and Oyeronke Oyewumi collections. 

We have poetry books ranging from Nayirrah Waheed to Upile Chisala, from June Jordan and Ntozake Shange to Sonia Sanchez, from Ijeoma Umebinyuo to Koleka Putuma, and so forth. 

We are also particularly keen on providing space for Rwandan women writers like Sylvie and Yvonne Mukasonga as well as Celine Uwineza. We are also thrilled to be able to offer Ni Nyampinga magazines for folks to read through as they are written for young Black Rwandan girls sharing a lot about the culture and the life they go through.

We have classics like “Sister Killjoy”, “I know why the Caged Bird Sings” and “So Long a Letter” by pioneering Black African women who we consider having paved the way for us today and work by Sylvia Tamale that continues to guide us in Black African feminism.

Why are these collections crucial at this time?

SCC They offer theory in various ways and offer us a way to start things about intersections between race, gender, class, colonialism, and sexuality among other things. We hope by doing this we can communicate that Black women everywhere have been theorizing- the songs, the books, the art- all of it is how we make sense of and name our experiences and that is important because it reminds us that we have always been here and we still are. 

We also want to start the conversation about global Black solidarity that is rooted in understanding first the political experiences of other Black women and then moving towards tangible support. Blackness and womanhood are plurals and we must construct and discuss it as such.

How has the community’s experience been when interacting with the library?

SCC When we opened in January, we were joined by so many wonderful people and we put on a panel discussion and an art performance.

We were amazingly surprised by how the community received it, wanted to be part of this moment and the love they intentionally poured onto the library. Not only did they support us when we launched but the community continues to show up. With our re-opening, we are thrilled that still and even more people are happy about it. Offering to donate books as well as stopping by the library to borrow some. It’s been a tremendous experience so far. And we’re hoping it only gets better from here as well.

What more books specifically do you wish to have at the library?

SCC We want to add more books about LGBTQIA folks in Africa by Black women and on disability. We want to add books that offer tools to start thinking critically on socio-economic class and class struggle.

We want to add more books in French and Swahili written by Black women through the feminist lens. Not everyone in Rwanda speaks English, you know. 

We would love to add more books about Haiti, Brazil, and Colombia as spaces that offer a lot of knowledge on race and gender and the history of the African. We want to be able to have developed genres; a section for young Black children (3-12 years).

It is important and we want books speaking to music as a space for knowledge production- speaking to Gakondo, reggaetón, jazz, blues, and so on, and locating women in them. We were only able to start with about 130-150 books, so we have so much room to expand. We want all the books.

What is your vision for Kamaliza Reads?

SCC We hope that we can grow Kamaliza Reads to where it becomes an integral part of our community. We hope schools in Kigali can use it as a resource for their students both high school and university students. Where students can use the books in the library to inform their projects and research. We are especially hoping that the library can grow and have at least branches outside of Kigali. 

Taking this project outside Kigali and maybe into schools in other provinces can allow for us to start having these discussions in spaces that are different and most in need and even train each other to grow this fire.

We hope we’ll continue to bridge the gap between Black women in Rwanda and the diaspora- that we will continue to bring the authors of these books to life and here in Rwanda. We, as Rwandan Black feminists and scholars and organizers have a lot to offer and we want to hear from Black women elsewhere too. 

Lastly, we hope it will also inspire Black Rwandan women to write because best believe it, we will always have a place for you on the shelf and will encourage the community to read what you have to say. And maybe expand to other countries like Kenya and Uganda, why not.


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