A Letter To Cultural Survival: The Botswana Book Project


Soon after Botswana peacefully obtained independence from the British in 1966, the newly formed Ministry of Education established an educational network of free schools throughout the country. Students enter primary school at age 7, move to junior secondary school at age 14 and, if they qualify, they move on to senior secondary school at age 17. Attendance in primary school is high, estimated at 83 per cent, partially because students and their families need only pay for a school uniform, unlike in neighboring countries where tuition is charged. For a small fee, students are also offered a midday meal of maize porridge cooked in huge three-legged pots in the school yard.

In 1997, traveling as a tourist in Botswana, I visited several primary schools to deliver a gift of books and puppets I had brought from the United States. I found myself startled by the sight of 45 students in each classroom with one teacher, a chalk board and very little else. The students shared textbooks and often chairs. Where were the art projects and printed posters so familiar to every American classroom? As a school librarian in Vermont for the past 23 years, I was used to seeing broken crayons and faded construction paper tossed in the rubbish at year's end. As I conversed with the teachers, many of whom had the equivalent of a high school education and had been drafted into service by the government, I could understand why they were discouraged. When they learned that I was working toward my doctorate in education, one teacher eagerly questioned me about phonics, something that she had heard might help her to reach students struggling to read. "Could you help us?" she asked me. Where to start? To learn what was really important, I spent the next eight weeks visiting schools and rural communities, listening, learning and sharing ideas.

I began with library development. Using donated books sent by family and friends, I helped develop a village library in the rural community of Seronga. At the same time, I submitted a proposal to restructure the Maun Senior Secondary School library. Although this government school is blessed with unique financial support from the Lutheran Church, their existing library collection was inadequate and outdated. Many of the books had been purchased by volume and there was an emphasis on cheap romance novels. The Headmaster, seeing the value of a model library in a country without a library tradition of its own, accepted my proposal. I began by making the library more efficient and user-friendly, putting the library collection onto a computer database and teaching the library staff how to use the system. Working with an architect, I redesigned the library room to provide increased security and better work space. Together with the Botswana staff, I organized a reading enrichment program in which every English class has a weekly library "booktalk" or advertisement of new books. Soon, I began supervising the ordering of new library books, at the same time teaching the library staff how to evaluate the needs of the curriculum. Since the library's budget wasn't large enough to finance the number of books needed to improve the collection, I searched the Internet looking for help. By this time, I had noticed that none of the local primary schools had a library and although there was a committee studying the problem, the schools needed a "now now" solution, as they say in Botswana.

Books for Africa, an American nonprofit organization, warehouses donated books and sends 25,000 at a time to applicants in African countries. Books for Africa provides the books free of charge, but applicants must pay for shipping. Even with a generous matching funds grant from Books for Africa, the shipping costs to Botswana would still total approximately $4000. With a prepared slide show and high hopes, I visited the U.S. and successfully raised the required funds with the help of my family, the Kiwanis Club of San Mateo, CA and several church and school groups in Vermont. The first shipment of the Botswana Book Project arrived in October, 1999 and took nearly 6 weeks to sort and distribute. In the end, the 25,000 assorted text and library books benefited 21 primary schools, 8 junior secondary schools and one senior secondary school. Books were also given to a counseling program for teens, a medical clinic resource library, and a newly formed daycare for children orphaned due to AIDS.

Encouraged by this initial influx of books, three primary schools in Maun organized and petitioned the Village Development Committee to match their fundraising to build school libraries. I assured them that if they built the libraries, the Botswana Book Project would supply them with books. I have also recently received a request from the Senior Secondary School in Ghanzi, Botswana asking for library assistance. They have 300 uncatalogued books and no library program. (Maun Senior Secondary School now has 8,000 books in its database). I am currently raising funds to send a second shipment from Books for Africa, which would arrive in May 2000.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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