reprinted from the Mercury News, by Alia Wilson
United by a passion for books and reading, volunteers across the USA have made it possible for the African Library Project to deliver its one millionth book last month.
Founded by a Portola Valley, CA woman in 2005, the nonprofit group was created to increase literacy in a country whose population has the highest percentage of illiteracy in the world. It was during a family vacation in Lesotho, a small mountainous region in Southern Africa, that founder Chris Bradshaw realized establishing libraries could have a profound effect on increasing literacy.
She began working closely with local teachers and community leaders, and it expanded from there. Reaching the one millionth book “is a real statement about the people in this country and just what a generous spirit they have in wanting to help do good in the world and recognizing the importance of literacy for any civilization to progress,” Bradshaw said. “And it says the same thing about Africa. They recognize for their children to do better and to meet the huge challenges they face in Africa, learning to read to gain access to the world is pivotal.”
Since its inception, the African Library Project has completed 985 libraries in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Lesotho, Nigeria, Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi and Ghana and has created 750 partnerships with U.S. schools and other organizations.
Volunteers from the Bay Area and beyond collect, sort and pack gently used children’s books to ship to the group’s African partners. Partners, which range from Peace Corps volunteers to school administrators, then organize books into libraries to serve local African communities. The goal for each book drive is to collect 1,000 books up to an eighth-grade reading level and approximately USD500 for shipping and related costs to start one library.
Many students have taken the book drives into their own hands, such as Sharan Chakravarthy of Lawson Middle School in the Cupertino Union School District of California. “The reason I wanted to get involved in the project is because I know that many kids in Africa don’t have the resources or tools that we have, so we can learn the things we do which could be as simple as speaking the universal language of English,” Sharan said. “It would be great if everyone in the world could communicate with each other. Also, I wanted those kids to have the simple joy of reading where they can have a laugh or just have a smile on their face.”
Sharan ended up collecting 1,030 books–beating her goal of 1,000 books–to give to Herefords High School in Swaziland. Michael Shantz of Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church helped rally one of the church’s service groups, the Spinnakers, to organize a book drive this past year. “The entire church got involved in book collecting, and we had over 5,000 books to equip five libraries in Lesotho,” Shantz said. “We got all the Spinnakers together for a day of packing, labeling and palletizing all the books, then shipped them to the ALP New Orleans warehouse, from whence they were loaded on a ship for Lesotho.”
With the help of an ever-expanding database of volunteers–more are always welcome–the African Library Project hopes to set a new record by building 1,000 libraries on the continent. “When I first started this project, it was clear how absolutely life-changing it would be for African children,” Bradshaw said. “I have since come to realize that the benefit is just as dramatic for children who participate here by running book drives and donating their books.”