Meet Chris Bradshaw, Founder of the African Library Project

This week, we are excited to share an interview we had with Chris Bradshaw, Founder of the African Library Project. The African Library Project coordinates book drives in the United States and partners with African schools and villages to start small libraries. Visit their website to learn more: http://www.africanlibraryproject.org/

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What is your background?

One of ten children, I grew up in rural Indiana in a farming county with one stoplight.  I grew curious about the world from listening to the stories of my travel-loving parents and developed an early case of wanderlust. I spent my junior year in college (a long time ago!) studying in Sierra Leone and wandering through western and central Africa.  At age 20, I fell in love with the warm nature of Africans who generously shared whatever they had — and I was stunned by how difficult life was for rural Africans with no clean running water, no electricity, no schools and dirt roads.  I was completely overwhelmed and couldn’t imagine how I might help these people escape the hardships of extreme poverty and no education.

What is your position at African Library Project and how did you get here?  

I am the Founder of the African Library Project and a member of the board of directors.  While pony trekking (aka horse packing) in the tiny mountain kingdom of Lesotho in 2004 with my family, my son grew bored riding his horse.  He pulled out a book and began to read while he rode.  When I asked our guide about libraries in Lesotho, he replied, “I think there is one in the capital city.”   I immediately thought of all the books that are sitting unread on U.S. bookshelves until they end up in U.S. landfills.

When we returned to the village with our horses, the headman told me they had always longed for a library but had no idea how to get books.  “A library is so much more than books,” I replied.  “You would need the space for a library, staff to run it, bookshelves and a group of local people dedicated to its long term success.  If you can get those, I’ll help you get books.”

Two months later we spoke and the headman happily proclaimed, “The building is half done!”  “Wow!” I told him, as I thought, “Uh-oh. Now I have to do this!”  The village, Malealea, assigned the project to a Peace Corp Volunteer that was due to arrive in a couple of months.  Coincidentally, she was a retired librarian.  Together, Mary Ann Eisemann and I worked with the local villagers to start five libraries in Malealea Valley during our first year.  Once we got started, we didn’t want to stop!  Now our African Library Project has established nearly 2000 libraries in twelve African countries.

Why are education and literacy so important?

An education provides a powerful scaffolding for life.  One additional year in school increases a woman’s earnings by 10-20% over a lifetime.  Women with a post primary education are five times more likely than illiterate women to be educated on HIV prevention.  A child is half as likely to die by age five if the mother is educated.  A failure to tackle the learning deficit globally deprives a whole generation of opportunities to develop their potential and escape poverty.  An educated populace increases dynamic growth in the world’s poorest regions, while illiterate adults are more likely to be unemployed and are paid less.  They are more vulnerable to ill health, exploitation and human rights abuse.  Illiteracy locks communities into vicious cycles of poverty that lay the conditions for violence and strife.  40% of the world’s out-of-school kids of primary school age live today in conflict-affected countries.  Fortunately, illiteracy is not inevitable.  This is a challenge we can overcome.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing education and literacy-based nonprofits?

Access to education in Africa is getting better, thanks largely to universal primary education that is now widely offered.  However, the quality of education is still poor in many schools, especially in rural areas.  I see three major challenges:  1) Teacher selection - Many public universities only offer teaching degrees to the students with the lowest entry scores from their standardized tests.  The students who become teachers do so not because they have a passion for teaching but because it is the only degree offered to them to study.  This lack of passion for teaching has deep implications in the classroom and manifests itself in high rates of absenteeism among teachers.  2)  Teacher training - The quality of teacher training in public institutions is poor.  Some countries only require one year of tertiary training beyond high school.  Others offer two.   3) Schools lack basic learning resources such as textbooks or other learning materials.  Many teachers teach from memory, and they learned from teachers who were also teaching from memory!   3)  Lack of educational resources - Schools and families do not have access to books, especially children’s books, that are engaging, fun to read, informative and spark the imagination.  That’s where ALP can contribute so much!

What do you think are the qualities of a great nonprofit?

Great nonprofits need a mission that matters and an organization that stays focused on the mission.  They need high quality leaders at all levels, including the board, staff, donors and volunteers.  They need a sustainable, scaleable financial model that works and mutually respectful partnerships with like-minded organizations.  Flexibility and resilience are keys to not just surviving, but thriving.