St. Paul Pioneer Press

Crossroads to the World (editorial) (View editorial on the St. Paul Pioneer Press website)
April 2010

There is a green, gold and red sign jutting from a humble office building in St. Paul's Lowertown neighborhood that says "Books for Africa." It's a small statement (in the colors used for many African flags) that our city boasts the world's largest shipper of donated books to Africa — 22 million and counting after more than two decades in business.

This week, Ghana's ambassador to the U.S., Daniel Ohene Agyekum, came to the Twin Cities for a Books for Africa fundraiser and to pose in front of part of the latest shipment. Ghana is the group's largest recipient nation among 45 African countries it has shipped books to. Books for Africa is currently filling a 40-foot sea container with more than 20,000 books bound for the capital city of Accra

Textbook diplomacy earned a visit last year from President Sharif Sheik Ahmed of Somalia, another book-recipient nation, further evidence that Lowertown has become a world crossroads to rival Paris, London, New York — and perhaps even Minneapolis.

Pat Plonski, executive director, told us books are donated by individuals, schools, libraries, universities, publishers and other bookish types all over North America. They are stored in the keg room of the old Hamm's Brewery and at a warehouse outside Atlanta. A crammed sea container can hold about 22,000 books, weighing 20 tons, and costs about $10,000 to ship. The group is a nonprofit charity and it depends on donations or payment by groups in Africa for shipping.

These are English-language books, so the group works in countries where English is the language of government and commerce, and less in nations where French or Arabic is dominant, Plonski said. Books for Africa's products end up in school libraries, university libraries and public libraries — often after a long trek.

"Every container has a story,'' Plonski said, and the five-person staff in St. Paul (and five more in Atlanta) generally hear about port problems, truck breakdowns and other adventures from blue water to library shelf.

The diversity in ideas, purposeful creativity and day-by-day dedication of our city and region never ceases to amaze us. Books for Africa is fundraising for shipments to such African groups as Ethiopia Reads, the Naserian Girls Resource Center in Kenya and the Law School of the University of Abuja in Nigeria.

"We need books," Plonski said. "We need funds to send the books. We need volunteers to help pack the books.'' For information, go to the website at www.booksforafrica.org.