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Ellen Ndeshi Namhila: A viewpoint from Namibia

Profile by Margaret Adolphus

A career born out of exile

Photo: Ellen Ndeshi NamhilaAs a child, Ellen Ndeshi Namhila, university librarian of the University of Namibia (UNAM) and chronicler of Namibian history, didn't know what a book was, let alone a library – the only books she encountered were bibles and hymn books. A turning point came when she discovered a public library near her high school in The Gambia, started borrowing books, and conceived an admiration for the person standing at the other side of the counter.

At that time, Ms Namhila had already been a refugee for some years. Whilst a boarder at Eenhana Secondary School, constant harassment by the South African army, which involved arrests, beatings and humiliation of staff and pupils, prompted the 12-year-old to flee. After staying in a South West African People's Organization (SWAPO) camp in Angola, she obtained a scholarship to study at St Joseph's High School in The Gambia, moving there in 1979.

On graduation, Ms Namhila returned to the camp at Kwanza Sul in Angola. She became a teacher, but she had not lost her love of libraries: she decided to set up a library in the camp. This brought her to the attention of Nahas Angula, currently Prime Minister and then SWAPO Secretary for Education, who sent the talented girl off to the University of Tampere in Finland on a scholarship to study librarianship.

Returning to Namibia some 19 years after she left it, Ms Namhila started on a distinguished career in librarianship, working first for the Parliament library and rising to become director of library and archives in the Ministry of Education, and eventually seeking new challenges in the world of academia. She has held her current role since 2007.

Not surprisingly, Ms Namhila speaks – without bitterness, although her voice shivers when she talks about apartheid – of being born at the wrong time:

"… because my country was starting to wage the war between the colonized and the colonizers. This world of unfairness and unjustness and oppression – that is my background."

Like many people who have experienced injustice and a difficult start in life, she has a sense of urgency and clear priorities – she wants to get in there and change things, and wants like-minded people around her. No time-servers please.

And in her current position, servicing the information needs of her country's researchers and future skills base, she's a critical player in the rebuilding of the nation. (UNAM sees its mission as to become "a treasure house of knowledge at the service of national development".)

There are plenty of challenges: Namibia, having emerged from a long struggle against rule by South Africa, has been independent since 1990. Although the Government is tackling structural issues of basic education and gender equity, Namibia remains a country of marked contrast between rich and poor with much poverty, especially in the rural areas in the north (International Federation for Agricultural Development, 2009).

A treasure house of knowledge at the service of national development

Because of UNAM's position as the major University of Namibia (it is in fact one of the best universities in Africa) it acts as a national information and learning resource, so it's a bit like a combination of the University of London library and the British Library. As such, it serves not only the academic community, but also civil servants and people from the private sector studying after hours or on short courses.

The library itself is located in a four-storey building of approximately 5,620 m2. The ground floor houses the catalogue, special collections, the archive or institutional repository and technical services, including the library's servers. The first floor – where you enter the building – contains the circulation and reference desk, and 150 personal computers (PCs) available for student use. There are also interactive multimedia facilities for video-conferencing lectures from the main to the other campuses in the north of the country, at Neudamm, Ogongo, and Ongwediva, and an e-learning centre (with its own project manager) where lecturers can upload their teaching materials.

The second floor houses offices, including that of Ms Namhila, several collections, research and study cubicles, and a large number of reading spaces on each side. Finally, on the fourth floor there are more offices and a room with 50 PCs for computer-related training and information literacy.

Providing e-resources for those who don't have access to the Internet

In the West, one of the key library debates is about the physical versus the virtual library. It's become much more popular to use the latter for study, which you can do at any time and without leaving your room. The library itself is increasingly used as a meeting place rather than for private study.

But in Namibia, with an Internet population of 5.4 per cent (as compared with that of the USA's 74.1 per cent and China's 25.3 per cent), this debate is not relevant. Ms Namhila says:

"Many people can't afford food or school fees for their kids. A lot of our kids have to walk 5 or even 10 km from home up to the university on foot every day because they have no money to pay for transport. The Internet becomes a luxury afforded after I pay the home loan and the car loan. Everyone wants to have access to the Internet but many people are poor, already struggling to pay fees for their children at university."

(In Namibia as elsewhere in Africa, mobile phones are developing faster than the Internet due to cost factors.) Lack of access to the Internet, and even in some cases of possession of a computer, means that the library fulfils a vital support role in this respect.

It is, however, an important centre of activity in its own right, providing somewhere to meet, discuss, network and attend lectures and exhibitions.

Ms Namhila firmly believes that electronic resources are "the way to go" – but the access debate is not so much about where and when, but how many. An electronic resource can be used simultaneously by many, a print resource by only one person at a time.

UNAM library's content spending budget is around €60,000, or Namibian$6 m, which is a relatively small budget considering the university's 10,000 students (8,000 full-time and 2000 part-time), and compared with the content budgets of European and North American libraries. (Content spending for African academic libraries, at US$50 m, is about 127th of that spent by libraries in North America – US$2.54 b – and one 50th of that spent by European libraries – US$1.01 billion, Outsell, Inc., 2009).

Keeping researchers happy, and supplied with the e-resources they need, is obviously very important, and it can be difficult to do so within budget constraints. UNAM subscribes to a number of publishers and aggregators, such as Ebscohost, Oxford University Press, SpringerLink, and Sabinet, and a collection of Southern African journals. There is pressure to subscribe to more, but the concern is always whether they will be able to pay the subscription in future years.

Through its membership of the South African Consortium, the library has access to the Millennium integrated library system software, automates the administrative tasks of circulation and acquisition, detects changes in titles and publication patterns of serials, recognizes some pre-catalogued items (e.g. by the Library of Congress), and enables cross-database search and direct links to a resource if allowed by the vendor.

As befits a national university library, UNAM has its own institutional repository: UNAMSpace – one of only 26 in the whole of Africa (as of October 6 2009). UNAMSpace carries university records, theses, dissertations, conference papers and articles, as well as original research data (interviews, desk research, etc.) which can prove invaluable to have in a public domain in order to avoid duplication. Lecturers are also being encouraged to put their teaching material up there, in order to create a more open teaching environment.

One of the main concerns of academic librarians the world over is how to teach students to navigate the complex informational landscape, and to avoid taking the short-cut route through commercial search engines. At UNAM, there is a team of subject librarians to provide the link between the faculties and the library, ensuring that their resource needs are met; they also, together with technical services teams, carry out information literacy training.

Students are trained by their subject group in how to search and use particular databases, as well as how to evaluate all sorts of resources and reference them correctly. The same training is also done with staff, but separately, as staff members may not want to show their ignorance to students.

Building a profession in a young country

Difficult though it may be to acquire adequate resources on a small budget (so what's new, many librarians elsewhere may say) perhaps an even greater challenge lies in finding the skilled staff.

A nation's history is reflected in its libraries. In China, many collections were destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. In Namibia, it was not so much the collections that were destroyed, but the workforce disempowered.

When librarianship was introduced into the country, it was done so by the South African apartheid government, which "saw it as a service of whites for whites". If Africans worked in libraries it was as cleaners, and then, when the policy of apartheid softened in the 1980s, as library assistants. And when independence came in 1990, many of the skilled people running the service went back to South Africa – "We don't have many grandmothers whom we can go to for wisdom" – and with those who left, librarianship was seen as unfashionable, a "housewife's hobby".

And yet, the newly independent Namibia hit the ground running as far as libraries were concerned – the national library, the polytechnic and UNAM were all established. Contrary to popular belief, libraries cannot just be run by a few people handing out books as a hobby – they need people with first class management and information and communications technologies (ICT) skills, as well as knowledge of how to make a complex service run seamlessly and smoothly. In a country crying out for librarians, there were few skilled people.

Lack of a skilled workforce means that key posts remain unfilled, crucially that of ICT librarian, because of the lack of ICT professionals working in librarianship. The need for such a post is critical when so much of a modern library service depends on having the right technology, not only for now, but also the future. In addition, people lack generic skills, such as writing project proposals, which makes delegation difficult.

Ms Namhila developed a strategy for capacity building which was inclusive rather than selective: she could have picked out promising individuals, but decided that the criteria of what was meant by "promising" was too subjective. Instead, she relied on training and mentoring, as well as allowing people to take on new projects and learn from the experience.

Plans for next year include spending an hour a week on staff training, in subjects of direct relevance, for example those involved in digitization will attend training in metadata. Workshops are held internally and external training is cascaded back to the rest of the staff.

There are staff development fellowships for people to go away to study (Australia and Cape Town have proved popular destinations), but only one person can go at a time, and those who don't want to wait can study by distance learning, their books and fees also paid from the library's budget.

Librarians are also being trained closer to home: UNAM's Department for Information and Communication Studies offers a Bachelor of Arts in Library Science, as well as a two year diploma, from which 60 per cent of the library's professional staff are drawn. Ms Namhila works closely with the department to provide advice and practical experience for students.

Nevertheless, the need remains to go abroad for advanced studies, not least because of the need for students to be exposed to a highly developed library service to expand their horizon.

An inclusive management style

It's become fashionable to ask those in senior positions what their management style is. Ms Namhila denies that she has any particular management style, although it is clear that her experiences of the exclusive nature of apartheid have shaped her values:

"I always think that why would you make, why would you exclude somebody, what is it that you gain by leaving me out or leaving somebody out?"

Ms Namhila most definitely doesn't want to leave anyone out – everyone is important in her library, and everyone has a chance to prove themselves, from the librarian who advises on legal resources and helps with the budget, to the person who locks up or keeps the exhibition area presentable. Hers is very much a team effort:

"As for management style, I like to run a place where everyone feels they have a place to contribute, and also feel that they have a special programme they are running, that they are responsible for. Even our junior staff, you make them think they are responsible for security of the building. Or you may be responsible for the exhibition area, keeping it neat and clean and up to date – at the staff meeting they can report on what can now be removed."

A great way of valuing people is to give them praise when they do something well – even better, give them some tangible form of recognition. Ms Namhila has hit on a unique way of giving people a reward – if they do something particularly good, they get a certificate:

"And when people do well, praise them, recognize them – you can just issue them with a certificate, like one time I travelled and when I came back I found the staff had done an exhibition. I was so impressed. So what do I do? I can't afford to take them for lunch, but I can issue them with a certificate of recognition and ask the vice chancellor to sign it. And they feel good, they feel recognized, they feel appreciated".

Recording her culture's stories

In addition to being a distinguished librarian, Ms Namhila is also a published writer, documenting key periods and aspects of her culture.

Her book, The Price of Freedom (Namhila, 1997), is a dignified and moving account of her life in exile. It's a story of an escape from a violence which ruptured a child's sense that adults provide security, of an education obtained in The Gambia and Finland, of how friends and leaders in the camps replaced her extended family. Of the difficulties of acclimatizing oneself to radically different cultures, one largely Muslim, the other characterized by Western values of self-reliance diametrically opposed to the African values of reciprocity and interdependence, and where her difficulties were compounded by also raising a child as a single mother from a minority culture. Of her eventual return in 1993, to a different, but now independent Namibia.

She has also published a biography of Namibian political activist and founding member of SWAPO, Kaxumba KaNdola (Namhila, 2005). A legend to his people, Ms Namhila did not know as a child whether or not Kaxumba actually existed:

"The way people talk about him, it's like he's not a person. When I was a child looking into that I thought maybe some myth of a person because they say, when the police come for him he's sitting there, and he will tell them, 'Oh Kaxumba he just left, if you go that way you'll find him'. But he's the one talking, you know. And people tell all kinds of stories that some days the police are chasing him and he changed into a bird or he changed into a tree or he changed into rock. So I thought that Kaxumba was just a myth. And on our independence day when the President was sworn in and he was giving his speech he mentioned this person Kaxumba kaNdola and I was like '... so he's actually a person!'. I thought it was just a myth created to give strength to the people you know."

Her book is a unique piece of oral as well as archival history: the story not only of a great man, but also of the brutal system of contract labour that existed under colonialism, where those seeking work were banded with rings representing the perceived strength of the owner and their proposed destination, "A" being destined for the copper or diamond mines, "B" for jobs on railways, construction, or private firms, and "C" for the least demanding, and worst paid work, on farms.

Once they had gained work, they were paid little money, not allowed to complain, forced to live in zinc barracks for 18 months at a time, subject to ferocious beatings at the whim of their white employers, and fined for the death of a cow in their care, even if the latter had been attacked by a lion (who, incidentally, mercilessly marauded the workers on their brief visits to their homes). In an understatement worthy of the English, but replete with African dignity, one witness comments:

"... it did not take the human factor of the African people into account."

What drives Ms Namhila, who has just launched another book, Tears of Courage (2009), about five women – mothers, wives, providers – in the era of the independence struggle, is the desire to give her people a voice:

"When you are in a culture, your own culture, where your stories are not written down, and you get consuming knowledge from other places, somehow you just tend to say, well, maybe I can do it."

Do it she certainly can.


International Federation for Agricultural Development (2009), "Rural poverty in Namibia", available at [accessed October 26 2009].

Namhila, E.N. (1997), The Price of Freedom, New Namibia Books, Windhoek.

Namhila, E.N. (2005), "Kaxumba kaNdola: man and myth. The biography of a barefoot soldier", Lives, Legacies, Legends Series 02, Basel Afrika Bibliographien.

Namhila, E.N. (2009), "Tears of courage, five mothers, five stories, one victory", Footprint Series no.3: AACRLS, Windhoek.

Outsell, Inc. (2009), Library Market Size, Share & Forecast Report, Vol. 3, September 28.