As COVID-19 continues to afflict Africa where, according to the BBC, more than 130,000 people have died of the coronavirus and cases are on the rise in many countries, the Saint Paul-based nonprofit Books for Africa is ramping up the quantity and quality of the books it supplies to reduce the continent’s high rates of illiteracy.

COVID-19 has been keeping schools and libraries closed on that continent, limiting access to the books it already has and making Books for Africa’s effort all the more urgent. Last year Books for Africa (BFA) raised $3.2 million in donations and sent 3.7 million volumes valued at $38 million to 20 of the 55 countries it serves in Africa.

Books for Africa
Books for Africa executive director Pat Plonski shows off some of the children’s books that are being packed for shipment from the nonprofit company’s newly expanded warehouse at 717 N. Prior Ave. Photo by Brad Stauffer

“There’s a lot of hardship in Africa and a huge COVID problem, but people still can read at home,” said Joni Sussman, president of BFA’s board of directors.

The number of books shipped by BFA to schools, libraries and other institutions in Africa has grown exponentially since founder and Twin Cities resident Tom Warth began sending books to Ghana 33 years ago. A book lover, Warth was shocked to discover libraries in Ghana with empty shelves when he took a vacation there. He began BFA with the help of book publishers and other local donors. The list of its charitable partners has grown over the years to include numerous corporations, foundations, government agencies and individuals.

BFA is reported to be the world’s largest shipper of donated books to Africa. Since its inception, it has sent more than 50 million books to the continent. Some 46 million children, or about 40 percent of the children in Africa, do not attend school, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). More than 34 percent of Africans of all ages are illiterate.

In sub-Saharan Africa, the adult literacy rate was 65.5 percent in 2019 as tabulated by the World Bank. That is close to 17 percent better than the
49 percent literacy rate in 1985.

The kinds of books most requested by Africans are reference books, textbooks and children’s books. The vast majority of those sought are in English, according to Patrick Plonski, a Merriam Park resident and BFA’s executive director since 2003. The organization also supplies books in French to the continent’s French-speaking countries with the help of partners in Paris and Montreal.

A growing desire for children’s books

BFA has a new publishing division that is producing children’s books in the Somali language in partnership with Lerner Publishing and the Minnesota Humanities Center. The publishing division is also capable of translating books into many other languages spoken on the continent.

Another area of growth for BFA is the Girls Empowerment Collection, which distributes books to inspire African girls who have been denied educational opportunities. BFA recently worked with children’s rights activists in South Africa to help a group of 11-year-old girls start a book club. Some of the girls had never even seen a book before.

Children’s books of all kinds are welcome, according to Sussman, who has a background in children’s book publishing. The only kinds of books Africans do not seem to want are popular fiction for adults.

Books for African schools

BFA, in partnership with USAID, has delivered hundreds of thousands of new children’s books to Ethiopia with the help of the Ethiopian Knowledge and Technology Transfer Society. EKTTS was established in 2002, and its partnership with BFA has resulted in the distribution of more than 3.8 million books to elementary through college-level schools, 1 million medical books to medical schools and hospital libraries, and millions of digital e-books to colleges and public libraries in Ethiopia, according to EKTTS manager Yonathan Kassahun.

BFA has a newly expanded warehouse at 717 N. Prior Ave. where donated books may be dropped off between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays. Donated books are sorted there. The Midway warehouse ships 20 tons of books at a time to a BFA warehouse in Atlanta, where the books are further organized and readied for shipment to Africa. If a book is of a kind not wanted by Africans, BFA recycles it.

“Books for Africa is pleased to have played a role in marshaling global resources to significantly increase literacy across Africa over the past 33 years,” Plonski noted. “That said, there is much work that remains to be done.”

In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, the adult literacy rate was 65.5 percent in 2019 as tabulated by the World Bank. That is close to 17 percent better than the 49 percent literacy rate in 1985.

“All categories of books have been beneficial to the people of Ghana,” said Genevieve Eba-Polley, director of the Ghana Book Trust, but textbooks are especially helpful, she said. Schools that cannot afford the cost of new textbooks are able to procure them at very little cost through the efforts of BFA.

BFA is always in need of volunteers to help sort and pack the books received at the Midway warehouse. Though the job requires no heavy lifting, volunteers must be over 14 years of age. Those who are interested in volunteering can contact BFA warehouse manager Roger Anderson at 651-251-8896 or roger@booksforafrica.org.

— Carolyn Walkup

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