Bridging Africa's book divide

DAR ES SALAAM and TUKUYU, Tanzania — In the United States, students may complain about the cost of textbooks, but at least they can buy them. In many poor parts of the world, books are simply unavailable — at any price.

For 48 schools in rural southwest Tanzania, that will no longer be a problem. On Aug. 21, teachers and school children here celebrated the arrival of more than 4,000 boxes of books and supplies, donated by American schools, teachers and libraries. As a result these Tanzanian schools will have small libraries for the first time.

The Tanzanian schools are benefitting from a simple plan. Used books that were going to be thrown away in the U.S. are instead sent to Africa. It was organized by the U.S. Africa Children’s Fellowship (USACF), which has completed nine similar donations to Zimbabwe since 2003.

In a country where — as in many African nations — international aid, debt and politics have often made for a troubled mix, supporters describe the transfer of books as a straightforward, community-based project with tangible benefits.

A delegation of 19 American teachers accompanied the books to Tanzania, spending three days meeting local educators and visiting recipient schools. Exuberant local students greeted them with speeches, song and dance.

The donations thrive on the notion of partnership. The husband and wife leaders of USACF, Mark Grashow and Sheri Saltzberg, a retired teacher and public health administrator, respectively, chafe at phrases like “adopt a school” that suggest largesse. “We do not just want to bring things to Tanzania,” Saltzberg said to a group of teachers. “We want our children to know and love each other.”

American students’ elbow grease helps propel the donation process. Shipping alone costs $10,000 a container — the Tanzanian donation filled up three containers — so American high school students’ volunteer labor is welcome.

Grashow and Saltzberg initiated the program in 2003 after a trip to Zimbabwe, where they visited schools and made a simple observation: many schools had no books at all, while most American schools have a glut.

Back home, they established a sister school system in the New York City area. They collected  used books that were headed for the garbage. Every year they collect books that were going to be thrown away. They go through stuff that is left in students' lockers. They also collect used soccer balls, sports uniforms and shoes. Private donations — and USACF board members’ own savings — finance logistical costs.

Now the book donations have expanded from Zimbabwe to Tanzania. The lynchpin in the new Tanzanian project is Beston Mwakalinga, a Tanzanian immigrant who works for the New York City government, lives in the Bronx and grew up in one of the villages where the books were donated.

Mwakalinga said that his community’s precarious socioeconomic position made him feel he had a “calling” to do something. When he met Saltzberg and Grashow in 2007, he immediately petitioned them to start a book drive for Tanzania.

“It’s been torturing me for many years,” he said of ill-equipped schools in Tanzania. “I had to do something about it.” He soon became a USACF board member.

Mwakalinga’s native Rungwe district is hardly the neediest in Tanzania. There are verdant mountains, drenched in plantain trees, tea plantations and potato fields. After the morning mists clear, the area looks like one vast, flowering garden.

But rich as the land is, poverty still nags the hardworking local farmers, many of whom plow their fields by hand.

The poverty is not all. HIV/AIDS has slammed the area particularly hard. Rungwe district lies on the highway that connects Tanzania to points south — Malawi, Zimbabwe and South Africa — and AIDS swept through the region along with trucks and trade. Well over 10 percent of the population is infected — the highest prevalence of any area in Tanzania. In a region of 2 million people, there are 97,000 orphans, according to local officials.

Mwakalinga wants the children of the area to grow up to be literate, capable of more than subsistence farming.

The book deficit is not the only problem. The schools are short of teachers, desks and chairs. But Mwakalinga, Saltzberg and Grashow emphasized that they simply want to provide books, not revamp the education system.

And the program’s results in Zimbabwe show that books alone can make a big difference.

“Where we had districts where no one passed the entrance exam into university in five years, last year 34 students qualified,” Grashow said. Mwakalinga cautioned that results might not be as immediate in Tanzania, where English proficiency is lower. (The books are in English.) Nevertheless, he spoke about the books as if they were a priceless treasure.

The project has inspired others. Steve Roris, a dentist friend of Grashow’s who accompanied the trip to Mbeya region, wants to organize donations of used dental equipment along the same lines.

Such gestures may not directly address the underlying causes of global inequality. But teachers — both American and Tanzanian — are already thinking about ways to broaden the impact.

Janan Eways, an assistant principal at a public high school in Brooklyn, still had energy for more ideas after two days of bumpy dirt roads packed with school visits.

“We need to set up systems, we need to have real advocates for each of the schools, to oversee distribution,” she said. “We’re working from these books, and getting bigger.”