Tom Warth: 50 million books and counting … on the future of Africa

When I visited a new library in Uganda in 1988 and discovered its empty shelves, I had no idea that 32 years later Books For Africa (BFA) would be shipping its 50 millionth book to the African continent.

“Kofi Loves Music,” the actual book, will arrive this month in Ghana from the Taylors Falls Library. It made its way to the BFA warehouse in St. Paul and then to the warehouse in Atlanta and will be shipped from the Port of Savannah along with thousands of other books.

It was another step in the effort to End the Book Famine in Africa, which has been our guiding vision all these years. BFA has partnered with other nonprofits in Minnesota and Africa, with the African Union and with a host of publishers and businesses around the country and in Europe to ship school books, law books and legal libraries, medical books and agricultural books to all 55 African countries.

As the late Kofi Annan, former U.N. Secretary General and Honorary Co-Chair of BFA’s Law & Democracy Initiative, once said: “Literacy is quite simply the bridge from misery to hope.”

His comments have never been more profound than during the Covid-19 crisis.

As any American parent knows, school closures and remote learning in the era of Covid-19 have made life more complicated and difficult for our school children throughout the country.

Imagine what it is like for the estimated 250 million primary and secondary school children who are out of school across Africa where technology is lacking and remote learning is quite difficult.

Books become even more important. As classrooms close, kids need books more than ever. And when the pandemic ends, an entire generation of children will need to catch up on lost learning. Children who have access to educational materials will have a better chance of success in the future, academically as well as professionally and economically.

Education is essential to Africa’s development and to the future of its students. Kofi Annan and his friend, former Vice President Walter Mondale, pointed out a few years ago that there are two ingredients essential for the development of democracy in emerging countries: “A determination to educate a country’s citizens and a commitment to the rule of law.”

The coronavirus, as it spreads across the globe, has shown us how interconnected the international community has become. Americans and Minnesotans have a role to play in the education of students in Africa. It is the youngest continent with over 500 million people under the age of 18, and the percentage of young people is increasing, presenting a host of challenges as well as opportunities.

An educated youthful population provides a great opportunity for economic development and growth and the ability to build the foundations of a democratic society. Education will assure that Africa’s youth will become a force for good.

As I stood in that empty library in Uganda all those years ago, I never imagined that such a simple idea of sending books across the globe could make a difference in the lives of students. During my many visits to Africa over the years one memory stands out: the smiles on the faces of young students receiving books. They were so excited, inspired and engaged. They are the future of Africa.