In the past three years, Fahrni has opened six "Swiss Libraries" (named after her country of residence) in the newly democratic Mongolia, starting with her first in 2001 at Otgontenger University in UlanBator, where she is an honorary professor. No wonder she has been approached by institutions requesting her services, such as the Ministry of Education, which wants to collaborate with her in providing books to public schools throughout the country. Thus far, Fahrni has collected more than 100,000 new and gently used books, many donated by foundations and private citizens in Switzerland.
"We in the West have books in abundance, while private ownership of books in Mongolia is rare, and libraries have too little funding to fill the need," she says. "Collecting the books is no problem; collecting money to ship the 12-ton containers is another thing."
Fahrni moved from California to Switzerland in 1970. Active in politics and women's organizations, she is a member of the Cantonal Parliament of Thurgau and president of the Committee for International Relations of the Swiss National Council of Women.
But it was her participation in the fifth United Nations Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 that led her to network with women's groups around the world, as well as a 1998 visit to Mongolia, where women are actively pushing for change and progress. Indeed, women constitute at least 70 percent of students in Mongolian universities. Witnessing the lack of educational materials, Fahrni started sending books. Today there are two Swiss Libraries in UlanBator, one each at the Erdenet and Khovd branches of the National University, and at schools in Darkhan and Choibalsan. She continues to seek materials for adults and children written in English and German.
Also aware of a need for German and English teachers, Fahrni now sends educators to Mongolia. She has placed eight thus far, with 10 more set to go to the country in 2004. "The appreciation and warm hospitality of the Mongolian students and teachers is compensation for the sometimes difficult living and teaching conditions," she says.