Tom Warth, the founder of Books For Africa (BFA), has done a lot of unusual things to promote charity and education including walking across Minnesota and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro. But nothing has been as important to him as his "African Book Walk: A Hike Across The Gambia to End Their Book Famine."
Last February he led a group of about 20 Minnesotans who joined with Gambian officials, educators and hundreds of school children who trekked the 20 miles across Africa's smallest country to raise awareness about the need for books and education.
"There are 750,000 children in The Gambia, out of a population of 1.5 million, and if we can bring them books and highlight their need for books, we will begin to solve the book famine," Warth said.
This is a story about teamwork across two continents and a commitment to make a significant impact on the children of Africa through education.
Books are incredibly important to the students who often don't have access to them or have to share them with many others. Education and learning are keys to democratic and economic development in Africa. In a country with extremely limited book resources and a literacy rate of 45 percent, every book that we can ship to the country makes a huge impact, especially for the women and children.
The idea to collect and ship one million books to The Gambia came about in discussions between a medical group called Hand in Health, a Gambian native who now lives in Minneapolis and BFA, the world's largest shipper of educational books to Africa, which had worked with Health in Hand to ship medical books to a Gambian hospital. Megan Meyer of Hand in Health met Tom Gitaa, then chair of the BFA, in 2010 and he put her in touch with Lamin (Lang) Dibba, a native of Gambia.
"I said 'I'm in,' but I have to make some calls because we can't do this by ourselves; we need a team in The Gambia," Dibba recalled recently. He approached the head of the Gambian Association in Minnesota, Wuyeh Sanneh and the vice president, Alkali Yaffa. They called Dibba's childhood friend, Samba Faal, who happened to be the mayor of Bajul, the capital city, who helped put a team together in The Gambia. He also contacted the president's office, who designated someone at the Education Department to work with the group. Also providing valuable assistance was the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation, based in Nigeria, which provided funds to deliver over 100,000 books for this effort.
"If you are going to send a million books to a small country like The Gambia, you have to tell the man in charge," Dibba said.
Having grown up in The Gambia, Dibba knows that "without education, it's a real challenge to do anything. Without opening those doors, poor folks will never experience those opportunities... an educated group is a powerful group. It's the key to whatever you do. It's about empowering people."
Dibba and Meyer describe the teamwork between their efforts, the officials in Africa and the BFA as a "unique partnership. They (BFA) provide the resources and the books and we provide the feet on the ground," Dibba said.
Warth and friends consider the Walk Across Gambia a huge success, but only the beginning. A year into the project, organizers have shipped more than 198,000 books to the students of The Gambia. That is 20 percent towards the one million book goal. The books range from elementary and secondary school science books to university-level books to law books supplied by Thomson Reuters.
The impact so far could be seen in the faces of the hundreds of school children who greeted the American and British visitors and Gambian officials who made the walk last February.
"We saw the enthusiasm all the way," said Sait Saine, regional director for the Ministry of Education. "The books will be put to good use. Books are always important for education, especially at a time when we're trying to uplift our education."
A local school principal, Mrs. Kilanko, said, "We are very grateful to the donors for this initiative. Books are very valuable... they will help our children perform better in the sciences." Another principal, Karamba S. Barrow, said the books "will take us a long way. We are grateful that people traveled all the way from America to The Gambia to educate our Gambian children."
And the Nigerian ambassador, who attended events in The Gambia, Her Excellency Esther John Audu, said that "I am very encouraged and impressed with what is happening today and grateful to the donors and to Books For Africa, the Sir Emeka Offor Foundation of Nigeria, Hand in Health... partners who came together to ensure that education is provided. I am so carried away by the reaction of the students and teachers."
Africa and countries such as The Gambia face major challenges. But a project that helps bring a million books to a small country can have a huge impact. Books are the key to learning and education is the key to empowerment. That's what Tom Warth, Lamin Dibba and Megan Meyer believe. And they plan to return to The Gambia as soon as they reach the 250,000-book level, sometime next year.