Books for Botswana

Andrea Malenya visits with primary school children in their classroom. Malenya is a former Rochester resident and Mayo Clinic employee who now lives in Botswana and is executive director of the Botswana Book Project. The project was created to address what experts say was a "book feminine" in the country. (Contributed photo)

When Andrea Malenya moved to Botswana, leaving behind her Mayo Clinic job and her Rochester home for a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer, it was strictly viewed as a short-term thing. 

She never imagined that the South African country would become her home. Nor that her work would revolve around her love of books and helping to instill a culture of reading in the country. 

But what started as a two-year commitment to the Peace Corps has now become a 12-year sojourn, the last five with the Botswana Book Project, a nonprofit founded to increase literacy and address what has been called a "book famine" in the country. 

Created two decades ago, the book project has distributed more than 1.2 million books to schools and libraries across the landlocked country the size of Texas and bordering South Africa. More than 200,000 have been donated in the last two years years since Malenya became the project's executive director.

"Actually, I had every intention of coming back," Malenya said during a phone interview from her parents' Albuquerque, N.M., home where she is visiting. "And then things just changed."

The concept of a "book famine" might seem alien to people in the U.S., given the near-ubiquity of books available through libraries, personal collections and online platforms. Certainly, it was for Malenya, who so loved reading as a child that she would get in trouble in class for reading what was not assigned her. 

"I've always loved books," she said. 

But many adults in Botswana were not raised in a culture of reading, largely because of a lack of books. 

A big reason is poverty. Botswana has one of the largest income gaps in the world, according to the World Bank, with more than half the population at or below the poverty line.

Books are consequently considered a luxury in a country where many struggle to feed themselves. Schools lack the resources to pay for books to offset this deficiency. School budgets are spent on what they can afford, which are newspapers, magazines and textbooks. 

For Botswanians who aren't raised in the presence of books, the spark for reading rarely gets nurtured and developed when they reach adulthood.

Language is another contributing factor. While English is the official language of Botswana, a former British colony, Setswana is the main language spoken, which is primarily an oral language. The books that the project donates are written in English, the language they are taught in. 

As executive director of the book project, a volunteer position, Malenya's job runs the gamut from marketing to grant-writing. The project relies entirely on donations, whether it's books or money.

The project partners with St. Paul-based Books for Africa, a nonprofit that uses groups like the Botswana Book Project to channel books across the continent. 

Malenya said the book project prefers fiction and early reader books. It largely avoids textbooks and nonfiction books, which would require close coordination with the country's education ministry to ensure the books align with the school curriculum. 

"And since our goal is to get people interested in reading, that's not necessarily going to come from a textbook," Maleny said. 

Low literacy rates can have profound economic implications. Low rates often correlate to higher levels of poverty. Botswana also has ambitions to be a knowledge-based economy. And that's only going to happen through a population that enjoys reading.

Malenya wasn't raised in Rochester, but moved there after college. Her first job was as associate director of Arc of Southeastern Minnesota, a social service organization. She worked there for year before getting a job at Mayo Clinic in its international finance office, where she worked for six years. 

The books are delivered in large, 40-foot shipping containers that hold more than 500 boxes of books or 50,000 books. One container can serve 90 schools as well as community libraries, prison libraries and clinic waiting rooms. One has gone out each year since 2014. This year was an exception, when two were sent out. 

The children of Botswana share one quality with those around the world: The anticipation of opening a book. Malenya's favorite part of the job is watching school children rip open boxes to get at the books inside, an experience she doesn't get to witness as often as she would like. Financial restraints limit her ability to roam the country beyond the capital city of Gaborone or schools within a one-day drive. 

"They get so ecstatic when all it is is a box, and they know there's books in there," Malenya said. "And when they start opening the books. It's always so exciting." 

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