December 11, 2013

Minnesota charity collects books for Africa



‘Tis the season for charity and good will and all those warm, fuzzy feeling. Maja Beckstrom wrote a piece for the St. Paul Pioneer Press this weekend about a local organization that’s sending donated books to parts of Africa that are in desperate need of the reading material. Books for Africa has made it its mission, since being founded in 1988, to collect books from publishers and individual donors to send to libraries, schools, and other groups around Africa.

The need for literature is fairly extreme in some places, as Patrick Plonski—executive director of Books for Africa—explains: “I’ve walked into empty libraries, often, in Africa—absolutely, positively empty. It’s stunning. How do they get anything done in schools? The answer is it’s in the head of the instructor. The instructor reads or memorizes something and writes it on a blackboard.” The St. Paul-based charity now sends millions of books across the Atlantic, 2.5 million this year, to be exact.

Many of those come in large donations from publishers such as Pearson and McGraw-Hill, and Capstone Publishers in Mankato, MN, recently gave 220,000 books for elementary through high school students. Individuals can also bring their unwanted books, including textbooks that can come in handy for schools. Because it costs some $13,000 to send a full sea container of books, the charity relies on donations to pay for that shipping as well, which often come from groups with a vested interest in education in Africa. Per Plonski, “Somali cab drivers will get together and raise the money and send books to wherever in Somalia they’re from. Sometimes, a Rotary group arranges for a shipment. Sometimes Peace Corps workers or tourists will raise money for a shipment to somewhere they worked or visited.”

Books for Africa always needs volunteers as well, primarily to sort through the books and weed out the ones that aren’t useful. Those include textbooks and reference books that are out of date, history books specific to the US, language books other than for French, wedding books and magazines, and weight loss/diet books (it’s unfortunate that it had to be pointed out to anybody that not many people in Ethiopia have much use for The South Beach Diet). Books that are always welcome are novels (including romance), kids’ books, and religious books, which tend to be requested by African groups.

Anybody who’s in the Twin Cities area and wants to pitch in as a volunteer can swing by on Wednesdays between 9am-3pm, or the first and third Saturday of each month between 9am-2pm.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.