With 1,000 books and $500, you can build a library in Africa.
That is the premise of the African Library Project, a volunteer-based book donation program started by a Portola Valley mother who was troubled when, on a trip to Africa, she was told that the country she was visiting only had one library.
Since that woman, Chris Bradshaw, founded the project in 2005, the grassroots organization has collected 1.2 million children's books to build a total of 1,165 libraries in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Lesotho, Nigeria, Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Ghana and Sierra Leone. The African Library Project connects U.S. schools, organizations or individuals with a rural African school or community that has been thoroughly vetted. The school or organization is then responsible for collecting the 1,000 books and raising $500, while the African community must find or develop the infrastructure -- a physical space, bookshelves and library staff.
Numerous Palo Alto schools have participated over the years, but the African Library Project is for the first time recognizing one in particular: Jordan Middle School, the recipient of one of the organization's annual "Compassion in Action" awards. The award recognizes both U.S. book-drive organizers and African partners who go above and beyond.
Led by now-retired school librarian Annie McQueen, Jordan has since 2006 collected enough books and money to build 13 libraries in Ghana, Lesotho, Botswana, Malawi and Swaziland.
To hear McQueen talk about the effort, it was no sweat but she attributes that to the model that Bradshaw has created. One year, McQueen asked about 10 teachers to gather 100 books from each of their classes. Last year, she asked all of the school's students -- about 1,000 total -- to bring one book each, and they piled up about 700 to 800 in one day, McQueen said. The school usually hosts a flea market in its parking lot with items donated by families to raise the money to pay for shipping fees. Extra books and money are donated to local schools, some in East Palo Alto, or charities, McQueen said. They also take advantage of an annual "buy one, get one free" book drive sponsored by book publisher Scholastic and encourage students to donate the second book.
"It's so easy to participate," McQueen said. She recalled a parent who got so excited about the African project that she wanted to do the same but for a school in Taiwan.
"They had a whole garage full of books but could never figure out how to get them to Taiwan. That was why Chris' system was so wonderful. We didn't have to make those connections."
Jordan has held African Library Project book drives every year for the past eight years, collecting more than 13,000 books total to start one or two libraries each year, and plans to continue to do so. Jordan's new librarian, Amanda Marchand, said they might not host the flea market this year but are going to brainstorm new fundraiser ideas.
Bradshaw said the Compassion in Action award is honoring McQueen's leadership and the longevity of Jordan's commitment to the program.
"No matter what you do, it's people that make the world go round and people taking leadership," Bradshaw said. "They're all pulling their communities together to make this happen for a community that's completely on the other side of the world, and most of them will never see them."
The seeds for the African Library Project were planted on a 2004 trip Bradshaw's family took to Lesotho, a country in southern Africa.
"We were pony trekking in a remote area where there are no roads, there is no running water, there is no electricity and there are definitely no books. My son got bored, so he pulled out a book to read, which was his favorite thing to do. That made me ask our guide about libraries in Lesotho.
"He thought about it for awhile and said, 'I think there is one in the capital city.'"
She said she couldn't stop thinking about an entire country -- with a population of about 2 million -- only having one library and "how books are falling off of U.S. bookshelves and filling up our landfills." She talked to the head of a village she was staying in and offered to get him the books if he could build a library.
Two months later, she heard from him: A building for the library was halfway complete.
Thus, the model was born. African Library Project works through various nodes of international connections, which Bradshaw and a volunteer board of directors coordinate. African schools or communities work through groups such as the local government, school administrators, nonprofits or Peace Corps volunteers. Those groups vet the applicants and also distribute the books and train the library staff. African Library Project also provides a manual on how to set up and run a library in a developing country.
Back on U.S. soil, the African Library Project provides support and tools for book drives and fundraising. The books -- gently used English-language children's books, as most African children speak their tribal language growing up but then learn English in school -- are collected, sorted, packed and shipped to the organization's U.S. warehouse. African Library Project volunteers take care of the actual shipping, and a library is born.
Bradshaw and McQueen both spoke to the paramount importance of reading and having access to books of critical value in a continent like Africa.
"What's so shocking is when you go into these rural areas, they have preschool through eighth-grade books because literacy tops out by eighth grade, even for teachers, because if you haven't had books to read, you don't get any better than that," Bradshaw said. "Many adult Africans have lost whatever literacy they gained because there's nothing to read. In school, people learn to read, but if there's nothing to read, you forget."
The U.S. literacy rate is 99 percent, while it is 63 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the Central Intelligence Agency's World Factbook. Of the 10 countries with the lowest recorded adult literacy rates, nine are in Africa.
"Not only has Annie (McQueen) opened the eyes of Jordan's students to the challenges of getting an education in Africa where most schools have no books, she has offered the students a way to do something about it," Bradshaw said.
And though McQueen retired from her post at the library after 17 years last year, she said she plans to continue to contribute to the project on her own.
The African Library Project will present Jordan's Compassion in Action award at a gala this Saturday, Sept. 20, in Portola Valley.