Blind devotion to books

A Japanese woman is bringing libraries to rural Thais in a bid to encourage reading

Yoshimi Horiuchi, founder of the Always Reading Caravan Association.

Yoshimi Horiuchi -- the founder of Always Reading Caravan Association (ARC), an NGO that sets up mobile libraries in rural Thailand -- is passionate about reading. Nothing in this world can quench her love for literature, not even the fact that she is blind. 

Horiuchi was born in rural Japan. Her family discovered that she had an eye defect when she was just a few days old. As a kid, she was only able to see colours and light, never any actual shapes. Horiuchi has never seen a face or a written word. 

"Despite my condition, I have always been a bookworm," said Horiuchi. "My parents didn't like reading. But somehow they -- and even my cousins and grandparents -- decided to read to me and my siblings when we were young. They read novels, always the thick ones. No cartoons. I didn't always understand them, but I liked that adults read to me. I've been addicted to the world of books ever since."

As a kid, Horiuchi always relied on others to read for her. But that changed when she first learnt Braille. From that point on, reading has always been a big, inseparable part of her life.

One of her favourite books is Totto-Chan, The Little Girl At The Window by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi.  "I didn't know how wide the world was. But with books, I could go anywhere."

Back when she was a student, Horiuchi participated in exchange programmes to USA and Thailand. Through her journey, she learnt more about the unfortunate lives of those around the world -- refugees, orphans and abused victims.

This infused her interest in community and social development. She wanted to help others and so she thought she would use her favourite hobby to do that.

The idea of a library slowly formed. Though it initially started as a proposal to apply for a study grant in India, she finally turned it into a reality with the ARC.  

Horiuchi came to Thailand in February 2010 to start her work in setting up the organisation.

"Though I was born blind, I didn't feel it a hindrance. I've received good education and I've been helped by so many people. I want to work in this area and do something for others instead of always being the one receiving help from everyone," she said.

The organisation now operates a community library -- Hong Samood Rang Mai -- in Phrao, Chiang Mai. They have over 6,000 books that people can borrow for free, but there are fines for late returns. Most of the books available are in Thai language. Horiuchi said they're still in need of picture or interactive books for children as those are quite hard to find in Thailand.

Reading is not the only thing Horiuchi is focused on. The library also offers Wi-Fi and toys for children and the team organises frequent arts and crafts workshops and even occasional cooking lessons. Horiuchi's ultimate aim is for it to become a community centre where everyone can enjoy and learn in. It is open every day, except on national holidays.

"There may be lots of libraries around, but are they living libraries?" Horiuchi asked. "Most schools only carry old books. And some of them even lock books inside glass cases!"

The ARC has also opened another library -- Hong Samood Bai Mon, which is located in U-Thong District, Suphan Buri.

The association's staff and volunteers have also placed book shelves at different community places in the district, such as bus stations, hospitals and temples. They also conduct outreach programmes to local schools, villages and hill tribe communities. So far, the team has set up two learning centres for hill tribe children in the North.

"I want everyone to be as close to books as possible," Horiuchi said. "With Thai people, they are just not that familiar with reading. They are afraid of books, thinking it's a stressful activity that requires a lot of brainwork. Parents -- and even their parents before them -- rarely read bedtime stories to their children nowadays."

"To me, I feel adults are responsible for opening that world for children -- a world of books. If we don't introduce them to books, they won't immediately know about it. All they have would be textbooks, which aren't fun to read."

Horiuchi recounted her experience travelling in Myanmar, Thailand's neighbouring country. Though a developing country that, in many regards, is considerably behind Thailand, the people could still find books in their local fresh markets. Thai people, on the other hand, would find mostly magazines, with decent books only found in proper book shops.

In the end, Horiuchi said it's a vicious cycle. Books are expensive. People, especially those living in rural areas or those from a poor financial background, can't afford to buy them. And there are only a few good libraries that people have access to.

Perhaps most importantly, Hirochi said: "The state has no budget for community libraries. If Thailand is a really poor country, that'd be understandable -- books would be less important compare to food or shelter. But Thailand has thousands of shopping malls. Thai people are quite well-to-do. So, I find this quite strange [that Thai people don't read more]."


Visit www.alwaysreadingcaravan.org for more information on the Always Reading Caravan Association.

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