Back in 2001 I met a young Congolese orphan who was living as a refugee in Tanzania. I shared his story in One Day The Soldiers Came: Voices of Children in War, but I was reminded of him the other day by an email I received from Pam Allyn. She wrote:
Just one book can change a life. Imagine what joy that one book can bring to a child who has never held a book before, and what a difference it can make in that child's life!
The global literacy organization that she founded*, LitWorld, is running a book drive with the International Book Bank to fill a shipping container with books for children in West Africa, most of whom have never owned a book in their lives. From now through December, people can mail or drop off books at a variety of locations, which will be shipped to Liberia and Sierra Leone.
These are two countries that have been ripped apart by some of the nastiest wars of our time, and are only just beginning to rebuild and create a brighter future for themselves. They have a lot of needs and it can seem almost frivolous to talk about sending children's books in the face of war crimes tribunals and fatal malaria and crushing poverty.
But this is when I think about the Congolese boy I met in Tanzania all those years ago. He's a young man now, and his country too is still reeling from over a decade of internecine violence. When we first met, he was 12 years old and he loved to read. He had little else going for him... he wasn't terribly popular with his peers; he had no parents to look after him; he had no real prospects for the future, even if he could figure out how to stay in school. He drew pictures of himself, dead and buried, imagining an escape from the miserable confines of his young life. There wasn't much I could do for him. I was leaving within days. I gave him a copy of The Little Prince in French and English so he could practice and so he could read a little about another child on his own, having adventures. I gave him the book because he loved to read. I gave him the book because he lived in a world filled with too little kindness. I gave him the book knowing that it would change nothing about harsh reality of the life he was living.
I stayed in touch with him over the years and learned that he had held onto that book through countless upheavals, and that he had started a kind of support group for other orphans. He would read the book aloud to them and they would take turns reading it and dream together about life beyond the dusty confines of that sprawling camp. I was able to send him some other books from time to time, and those too became assets for the struggling little network of eager readers he was building. I learned that just a few years ago, he passed his national exams in the Congo with flying colors. He continues to lead a youth support group for Congolese orphans. He is trying, against the odds, to dream bigger than his circumstances allow. He doesn't think about himself dead and buried anymore. Things are hard, but he is trying.
While there are a lot factors that enabled him to survive all those years of deprivation when so many others gave in to despair, turned to the militias or drugs or booze, I strongly believe that his literacy and his ability to forge a community around himself through the power of story played a role in his resilience.
I believe that literacy can do that for everyone. A book is vehicle for possibilities. It creates an intimate space between the reader and the word; it can impart essential knowledge and skills across time and distance, and it can spark a shared experience, like it did for this young man and other orphans who gathered around him to hear about the Little Prince in exile, traveling the universe.
LitWorld and the International Book Bank are trying to give that same opportunity to a large number of children this Holiday Season. While a book can't bring peace and prosperity to Liberia or Sierra Leone, it can start one child on the path to lead her country into the 21st century with hope and resilience. I hope you'll help out.
*Full Disclosure: I serve on the Jr. Board of this organization