Books: Books and Reading are only starting to be valued in this culture. This country is still young, and before it got its Independence in 1966 it was the second poorest country in the world. There were very few schools and most people were illiterate.
Only two generations later, school is compulsory for children until 10th grade and 70% of the student population continues to finish 12th grade. However, most of these students have illiterate grandparents and many of the parents have low literacy or no literacy. When a person is not literate, they often don’t have any value for books – so most homes do not have books. Few parents read to their young children or encourage their older children to independently read.
Libraries: The Rothschild and Gates Foundations have done a phenomenal job in building very nice libraries in some villages here. In our training village, Kanye, the library had three rooms, organized books, a card catalogue, organized periodicals, and four computers with free internet to all library card holders. It definitely provided value to the community and it was often full of young people when I visited.
Molepolole (population 70,000) is not so lucky. It has a very small library with no card catalogue, no computers, and no current periodicals. A good percent of the books have been donated by Americans and American organizations, but too many of those books are books no one liked in the first place. The books sat in libraries unchecked for years and then were donated to Africa where they continue to never be checked out. These old boring books are not too inspiring and do not really encourage children (or adults) to read. Some of the books from America are good books, but too specific to American culture to be of interest or value in Botswana including things like “Life on the Mississippi”, biographies of persons such as Eleanor Roosevelt or Babe Ruth, “How to Get More Done Faster” books, old cookbooks, with food that is not available here, business books discussing development or implementation that is not here and will never be here.
Kwena Sereto Library: My school library is nice in that it is a large clean room, with air-conditioning and about 20 bookshelves of books – maybe a couple thousand books. But, on closer examination the books leave a little to be desired with many being old curriculum or text books from 20 or 30 years ago. Encyclopedias from 1993. Strangely, many of the fiction books are populist books by authors such as Robert Ludlum, Danille Steel, and Judy Collins.
Good reference books, current text books, literature, African oriented books are in short supply. There are no computers, no card catalogue and no periodicals except newspapers which are not kept for longer than a week. While there is some organization to the way the books are filed, it is obvious that the “system” has not been followed in a good long while.
Reading: Despite the state of most libraries and the lack of books in homes today– I see children who are growing up in a society desirous of literacy, and really enjoy reading, and are in a constant state of searching for books. They love the same kind of books that teens in America love with an emphasis on fantasy. When I teach English I start every Monday asking what books the kids are reading and 5 or 6 kids have a book to discuss. Some have started talking about articles in magazines or newspapers they read because they see how much I enjoy discussing what they read.
As I have mentioned several times before, there are 6 boys living next to us, now ages 4 to 17. Three of the four oldest enjoy reading and one in particular LOVES reading and reads most books I can find for him in a single day. At first I did not believe that he could read that fast. I changed my mind when I found he could thoroughly answer questions about the book. In fact, he could get perfect scores on the Sparks Notes web page test I asked him to take when I gave him books like Treasure Island, Peter Pan, and Moby Dick. (I keep asking this boy to request to absent father to send him to a private school, where he will be much more able to use his proficient reading skills to get a good education, and then a good job – but it does not look likely).
There are not many books available here, but several people (especially my dad) sends books in the mail that I pass along. Many people have donated books to the Peace Corps and I have nearly gone through their entire supply. I also take books out of our school library – but I was scraping the bottom of the barrel and the kids, predictably, did not like the last several books I found for them.
BOTSWANA BOOK PROJECT: botswanabookproject.org. And then – the Botswana Book Project came!!!!! The woman who runs the project, Pam Shelton, lived in Botswana for 11 years, worked on many incredible projects and saw an endless need for books in the country. She started a Not-For-Profit organization called “Botswana Book Project” and she spends all year collecting books and raises about $20K to ship a cargo container full of books here.
As you can imagine – many PCV’s are as excited as can be and try to secure a couple hundred books for their school/village library e ery time a new shipment arrives.
It is much harder to get community buy in, to the value of this project, than you imagine. As I said earlier – books don’t have a value to many adults. Also, adults rarely seem to think it is important to fulfill the needs of children. It takes an effort to get a truck and get to Gaborone, it takes hours or sometimes days to make the trip and there is the petrol costs as well as wear and tear on a vehicle – and many schools or village libraries will not cooperate by providing transport to Gaborone to get several hundred good free books. To make it all happen, the PCV’s have to move heaven and earth! And we do. Because we know two things: 1) Reading books has a transformative power. Reading a book allows readers to share a collective experience with millions of others around the world by walking in another person’s shoes and by looking through another person’s eyes; 2) that there are not enough books to meet the needs of the young hungry minds developing here.
After a PCV arranges transport, it takes about 2 to 4 hours to pick out 8 boxes of appropriate books for school/village. We have to move the books to the trucks, drive back home, unload and then unpack boxes, and finally organize them for the library. There were text books, novels, class room reading books, comics, self-help, women’s studies, world history, black history, biography and series such as Harry Potter and Hunger Games, bibles and just everything.
Pam is pretty good about culling the books to get rid of stuff no one wants to read, or stuff that is too specific to America. It was fun to go through everything and frustrating not to be able to take more home.
Student Teachers Help Again: When I got the books to my school, the teachers were mildly excited, mostly just to get “something for free”. However, we just got new student teachers, who were much more excited and asked to work with me to get the books in the library. I am working with a student teacher to teach 30 children about library organization. We are writing procedures for adding books, deleting books, checking books out, re-shelving books and the concepts of the Dewey Decimal System. There will be no card catalogue – but 30 children will have a much better idea of the value of a library and how to use a library. 850 kids will have about 400 new books for reference, research and for fun!
I can’t sing the praises of the Botswana Book Project enough! I would like to encourage all American’s who are interested in increasing the literacy in Botswana to check out this organizations’ web site and consider how to contribute. When I return to America I plan to volunteer a great deal of time to this very valuable project.
I also want to sing the praises of the student teachers here. I often get discouraged at the school with all the bureaucracy and demoralization. The school seems to be hopeless at times. However, each time the student teachers come with the new idea’s and their endless energy, I get hopeful and excited about the future again.
It was a good moment in my Peace Corps Service and it will be good hours of reading the students of Kwena Sereto.
Please consider donating time or money to this valuable project. You can see the site for the organization here: botswanabookproject.org