Africa Literacy Project

In a house in the Galveston Bay community of Seabrook a retired couple manages the collection and shipment of millions of textbooks. As Houston Public Radio's Laurie Johnson reports, Barbara and Charlie Clemmons send hundreds of cargo containers of free books to village schools in Africa.

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"We had just invented a new career for ourselves."

Barb and Charlie Clemmons live in a modest home, overlooking the bay. Over the past few years, they have shipped nearly seven million books to countries in Southern Africa. The Clemmons are members of the Seabrook Rotary Club. Several years ago, they hosted several South African rotary members in their home. That's when they learned about the need for reading materials.

"Some of our rotarians are starting schools just under a shade tree, with very rudimentary material. And the need is so great, when we first started the project they told us a teacher came in and asked, as she picked up her books, was it okay if she cut the books in two. And they said 'why would you want to do that?' and she said 'well then two people would have something to read.'"

Instead of cutting books in two, the Clemmons decided to start a campaign to collect donated books from libraries, schools and publishing companies. They ship about one container per month to Southern Africa. Although the books are free, and the cost of shipping is donated by a local company, the containers cost about $5,000. So they also raise money to buy containers, which are then crammed with books, sent to Africa, unpacked and put to use.

"[Charlie]The containers are converted into clinics and libraries and schoolrooms and some in temporary living quarters, but the last one, I think, became a community center for one of the impromptu villages...[Barb]Yes, or a workshop to teach pottery-making -- just all -- the creativity, the diversity of the projects is totally amazing."

The only country in Southern Africa that's out of reach of the Clemmons' book project is Mozambique, for the simple reason that the national language is Portuguese and Portuguese books are hard to come by. Meanwhile, English books are now in the hands of schoolchildren in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Swaziland.

"The happiest day I can imagine is when our colleague at the other end calls and says we don't need these any more, we are standing on our own -- we have enough schools, we have enough teachers, we have enough material. And then we'll find another country to send them to."

Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.

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