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Bridging Africa's book divide

Multimedia: Cast off books from the US are valuable to schools in Tanzania and Zimbabwe.

Schoolchildren in Rungwe District in southwestern Tanzania beam as a delivery of old U.S. schoolbooks arrives. (Eamon Kircher-Allen/GlobalPost)

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.