We, quite rightly, protest about education cuts and campaign for better provision of books in schools and libraries; but in many countries books are in very short supply and libraries barely exist. Margaret Marshall writes about a project designed to help by providing
BOOKS FOR ALL
`My harambee (self-help) school,’ writes an English VSO teacher in Kenya, `like many others, has no electricity and no running water and there is a rapid turnover of staff. The pupils are mostly from peasant homes in this area and find it difficult to pay fees never mind to buy reading books. I would be grateful for any assistance to buy books.’
From Peru came the letter saying `Our library is a poor institution supported by volunteers. We are introducing for the first time in this lost zone of the Andes, the service of a library.’ A sixty-four year old teacher working as a volunteer in West Africa writes, `I am sure that you are aware of the fact that children’s books in Liberia are at a premium. We just don’t have any.’
We take it for granted in Britain that, when children have learned to read, there are then many books for them to choose from, but in many countries children lose the skill of reading because of the lack of books and libraries. Experience shows that, rather than sending out donations of new or second-hand books, it is better to make it possible for librarians and teachers on the spot to buy the books they know will meet the children’s needs best. Hence the Books for All project’s method of supply.
The project is administered jointly by Unesco and IFLA (the International Federation of Library Associations). As the voluntary, and only, organiser I collect donations from many of the book-developed countries and convert them into Unesco Units of Money (UNUMS), which are rather like cheques made out to the organisations that request help. These organisations can then use their unums to buy books in their own country or from abroad. The book supplier is paid in his own currency when he submits the unums and a list of the books purchased to Unesco in Paris. The system was devised to avoid the risk of corruption or theft and has worked well. Last year unums were sent to libraries in Congo, Fiji, India, Kenya, Liberia, Peru, the Philippines and Tonga.
Recently the British branch of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) started a Third World Book Fund, largely on the initiative of Robert Leeson, and has channelled some of that Fund through the Books for All project, with donations to a jungle village in Peru, a school in Kenya and a community children’s library near Hyderabad in India. Many branches of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups have sent donations and a number of schools have held fund-raising activities. One school in Hertfordshire linked raising money with a study of the particular area to which they wished to direct their donation. Other contributors include a cafe owner in Tokyo, a Brownie pack in Belfast, a Soroptimist Club in Texas, a Rotary Club in Leeds and an individual in Finland.
The joy of the recipients is heartwarming and the gratitude is expressed sometimes in letters from the children, sometimes photographs, sometimes lists of the books bought and almost always the hope for continued help. I keep a filing cabinet of all the letters and photographs and one file is the pending file, awaiting enough money in the fund to be able to supply the requests for aid. One unum = one US dollar. Five unums will buy one children’s book, but a gift of enough unums to buy 100 books makes a world of difference to a group of children who have none, and small donations collectively make bigger ones.
The work of the Books for All programme can be summed up in the words of a message that came with a donation from an elementary school in Osaka, Japan. `We will be happy if our small contribution will be useful in improving education in your country. We are living on the same earth. Let’s cooperate with each other.’
Readers of Books for Keeps who would like to help the Books for All project can contact Margaret Marshall at 6a Harmer Green Lane, Digswell, Welwyn, Hertfordshire, AL6 OAD (Tel: 043 871 6020).