Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book Fiasco

Last term I initiated a project with a donor in America called “The Africa Library Project” (ALP) in an effort expand Kumakwane’s only library. This library is located inside the junior secondary school where I work. It is the size of a school classroom with 10 scantily clad shelves of books. Although the schools library committee has a staff chairman and 8 student “monitors” who meet regularly, the library resources are too minimal to provide much work for these motivated members. The students complain that books are torn and out of date and that their favorite subjects ( ) are poorly represented among the available texts. Kumakwane’s village residents never visit the library because they know it’s had the same meager collection for nearly 20 years.

Through the ALP, professionals in Botswana and Lesotho may submit a description of their village and 3 letters from community stakeholders requesting and justifying expansion of their library resources. If your application is accepted, ALP will run a book drive where, for 4 months they promote your school’s needs. Interested donors receive copies of the letters, quotes and photos to inspire their contributions. Schools may receive up to 1,000 books from the ALP drive, postage covered in full.

When I learned about the project I was elated. For the past two years our school’s academic rank has been dropping lower and lower. Whereas we were once ranked first in our district, we are now mid-range alongside many of the larger, more rural junior secondary schools. Many teachers and students attribute this drop in our position to the student’s floundering English language skills. Although at first I thought this might be an exaggeration, I was soon convinced after teaching our Form 1 guidance session where nearly all the children were unable to understand me. This poor performance was concerning. How could these children make it through the next 3 years of all-English classes with all-English exams and go on to all-English universities? Without language skills they were sure to underachieve and with Botswana’s limited economy this could lead them into a myriad of professional, personal, financial and even health problems.

One day I managed to ask a Form 1 class why the thought their English skills were so poor. A handful of students blamed their “lazy” English teachers (typical teenager-response) but a number of them also criticized the library. “We’re never even allowed to go in there,” one student told me. “The teachers say we talk too much in the library but there’s nothing to read so what else can we do?”

I presented the ALP project idea to the Library Committee in late September and they pounced on the idea. This was incredibly encouraging as nearly every project
I have initiated in my school has met resistance from teachers who claim they are “too busy to help.” (True in some cases though I’ve been around long enough to know that the majority of them head home for their afternoon siesta at 1:00 and never return). So the response was heartening and I immediately began to romanticize the possibility of finally harnessing their energy for skills transfer and capacity building. With the books as my “carrot” I could get students and staff to learn effective research skills, powerful letter composition and the importance of data collected for inspiring donor support. All this would have to be done in English which would allow for language training at the same time.

I was also excited to think that the success of this project could propel students and teachers to work with me on other, more challenging initiatives that I cannot (and will not) pursue without their participation.

So with all this in mind we launched into the project in early October. For weeks I worked with the student library monitors to write their letters and I taught committee members to interview people in our community as a means to collect quotes that reflect our need. Letters and quotes all needed to be typed which gave me a chance to train them on microsoft word skills. As a finale I had the kids pose in various places around the library to, again, show our donor that we have the need but also (as I explained to the students) to show that we have safe, available, clean facilities where we can safely and responsibly store the books.

By November we were finally done. I sent the application, letters, quotes and pictures to the Africa Library Project in November 12th. Everyone eagerly awaited a response.

When two weeks passed without a reply from the donors I decided to send the files again. But when another month passed I began to worry. I asked my aunt in the States to see if she could contact the Africa Library Project to make sure they had received our application.

A week later my aunt sent me this email:

“After you told me about the African Library Project, I called their office in CA. Maybe you've heard from the woman in charge by now, but if not, she told me she wasn't sure what to write you and so she hadn't responded. Apparently, they have a program for mostly primary schools in Botswana and are working with the Ministry of Education, so she doesn't know when they would be able to do something for your school. My impression is "don't hold your breath." She seemed like a nice person, but I think she should have at least answered your and others application, simply to acknowledge it if nothing more.”

I was devastated.

School was starting again in just a week and the students would be asking about the project. I didn’t know how to tell them that all their efforts had been futile and the books would not be arriving.

But then—out of the blue—my friend Jennifer writes to tell me she’s assembled a box of used books that she’d like to send to our school. Novels, national geographics and other texts were on their way and could I just confirm the right address for her so she can get them on their way?

I was stunned. Jennifer has no idea about our need for books—or about the project—or about the disappointing news I was about to convey.

Jennifer’s books arrived in Gaborone last week. Five days before the start of the new term. Surreal.


Jennifer’s books were a miracle but still only about a 10th of what the students had expected to receive from the Africa Library Project.

I am hoping to contact the ALP again next year and research other book donors in Europe and the States. If you have any information about book donor agencies or would like to get rid of that old box of novels in your basement… please contact me! (

I’ve attached here one of the ALP application letters if you are interested in reading it. This letter was written by Lorato Blanken, the 15 year old student chairwoman of the Kumakane Junior Secondary School Library. Lorato has been a member of the library committee for the past two years and this month will begin her final year at our school.

She wrote this letter in October:

Dear American Donors

My name is Lorato Blanken from Kumakwane Junior Secondary School and I’m writing this letter to request books from you as the American donors to help us by supplying us with some books like novels, textbooks and other books as this will help the students in their studies. It is hard for us students to use the books available because its either they are outdated or one needs the book being used by another students. The books can only be used whilst in the library as there are few of them because some of the books we have got worn out. The government is not able to supply the school with books as it has to help other schools with the same problem.

There are two schools in our village but this is the only place with a library. However it is so unfortunate that this library is small and has a high shortage of books. The books available are either of an old version or look old. Students normally prefer to study in the classroom because a large number of students at the library lead to inability to share the books as they would be looking for the same information. The books can only be used whist in the library as there are a few of them because some of them have gotten worn out.

If we had the books we could borrow the books from the library to use at home, in class and for extended study (daily from 2:00 – 3:30). We could use the books for improving our English as it is our second language and we can even use the books in our leisure time. Other pupils from the primary school can come and borrow the books from our library and this would help them improve in their studies.

Thanks for considering our request and we look for to hearing back from you. It will be a pleasure to receive books from you as this will help us greatly.

Yours Sincerely,

Lorato Blanken, Student Library Chairwoman


michelle said...

There are a number of agencies that donate books to schools around the world. Here is just one list of donor organizations that was updated last year:

Good luck!

michelle said...

Sorry that link won't post, I will email it to you