Obies and the Peace Corps: A Longtime Engagement (cont'd)


A World of Words
by Bonnie. S. Lawrence '70


But as she discovered the true needs of the village of Yikpa, she found herself coordinating an entirely different project: establishing a village library.

As momentous as the task was for the village, ultimately it was even more significant for Wendell: it helped shape her life's work. Opening a tiny library in the small African town, and realizing that similar needs existed worldwide, spurred her to initiate the World Library Partnership, a nonprofit organization that provides financial help and advice to libraries in developing nations.

Libraries were far from her mind when Wendell arrived in Yikpa in late 1991. Armed with a Oberlin degree in biopsychology and Peace Corps training in fisheries, the New Jersey native set out to help the villagers improve the management of their fishponds. Yet she soon discovered that government plans don't always jibe with residents' wishes. The villagers in Yikpa had no interest in raising more fish.

So Wendell scrapped the fisheries project and moved on to others, including poultry vaccination and farming experiments, none of which captured the imaginations of the townspeople. It wasn't until a man who taught a literacy class for older women approached her about obtaining books for the class that she was struck with the idea for a library. "A lot of thoughts clicked in my head at once," she says.

Wendell had seen the villagers' intense interest in the written word and the value they placed on education. Many came to her house to peruse her American magazines, despite their illiteracy in English. And she had often seen villagers reading tattered paperbacks late into the night under the street light at the Peace Corps compound.

She realized that the need for books was great, not just for the literacy class, but for the whole community. "I had yet to figure out a project that the villagers were excited about, and the library set them afire."

Wendell and the literacy teacher, local shopkeeper Norbert Adewuho, sought book donations from local sources such as the U.S. Embassy library and a grant from the Friends of Togo (a group of returned Peace Corps volunteers). They also raised funds themselves, buying books in both French, the language taught in Togolese schools, and Ewe (EH-vay), the local language. The books, which they placed on shelves in Norbert's popular little store, included state textbooks, fiction by African authors, books on agriculture and health, encyclopedias, and American classics.

Those 200 books were Yikpa's first library. To Americans, accustomed to libraries with thousands of volumes and computers and Internet access, a few shelves of books may seem trivial. But to villagers in Yikpa, that small collection was a wondrous thing.

"One older man holding a book said to me, 'Before I saw these books in Ewe, I thought only white people wrote books,'" Wendell says.

Circulation figures proved the library's popularity. Although Yikpa had only 200 residents, the book sign-out register logged 2,000 entries in the first month. The villagers even coined a new word in Ewe for the tiny library: "book reading place."

With the success of the project immediately evident, Wendell and the villagers came to appreciate the need for a real library. On a trip home to the States, Wendell raised $3,000--mostly from family and friends. In 1994, a two-room library, built by the villagers themselves, opened for business. Over time the building has become a true community center, hosting literacy classes, story times, and discussion groups.

Her Peace Corps stint completed, Wendell returned home, married Jurgen Henn, a German citizen whom she had met in Togo, and took a research job at Duke University. But thoughts of the village library and how she might help those in other poor countries stayed with her. In early 1996 she sent a survey to Peace Corps volunteers inquiring about library projects they had initiated.

"I found hundreds," she says. "The volunteers ranked libraries as being really important in a community. There was a huge vacuum."

That realization spurred Wendell into taking action. She quit her job and opened the World Library Partnership as a general support organization for people trying to start libraries around the world. From an office in her home in rural Bahama, North Carolina, where the walls display posters of African scenes and events, she oversees the various programs that have evolved since WLP's creation four years ago.

First, she established a sister libraries program, similar to a sister cities program, connecting libraries worldwide through cultural exchange programs and offering new resources to poor libraries. The Carolina Friends School in Durham was paired with her library in Yikpa. Today there are about a dozen such partnerships.

NEXT UP WAS A CONTRACT WENDELL RECEIVED FROM UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to produce a manual and research guide on starting and running a library. UNESCO distributes "Libraries for All," which has been translated into Spanish, French and, soon, Indonesian, free to libraries in developing countries. WLP provides it at cost in the United States.

Two years ago, WLP launched its latest program, Inform the World, a librarian volunteer program, or, as Wendell likes to think of it, a mini-Peace Corps for librarians. Last year ten American librarians spent a month carrying out hands-on service projects at rural libraries in Zimbabwe. They were a diverse lot: an HIV/AIDS librarian from the New York Department of Health; a school librarian from Albuquerque; librarians from Hewlett Packard, The Boston Globe, and the World Bank; and two recent library school graduates.

Before they depart, volunteers receive training in book donation, repair, cataloguing, and funding at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They're then off to Zimbabwe, where they are paired off and sent to rural areas.

Kenlee Ray, a former librarian/information specialist at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., was a 1999 volunteer assigned to a library in a school called "Mpumelelo," which means "progress." The village had a freestanding library built by a former Peace Corps worker, but the building was unusable because it lacked windows and doors.

The one-room school library had 1,000 to 2,000 books, but "that's a deceptive number," Ray says. "Most of these libraries are filled with book donations. They're not only useless, but very often they get 25 copies of the same book."

The Mpumelelo library, for example, had 50 copies of the Horatio Hornblower series and 25 copies of David Copperfield.

Book donations are a pet peeve of the WLP because more often than not, donated books don't fit the needs of the recipients. "People are well intentioned, but the reasons people give books are not the reasons people want books," Wendell says.

In general, she says, people give books because they have outlived their usefulness. Very rarely are donated books written specifically for developing countries. Often they're irrelevant; sometimes they're outdated; occasionally they're even moldy.

Such donations can put off, or even insult, the recipients. What the libraries in Zimbabwe really need, Ray says, are great novels geared toward adults and speakers of English as a second language. Most Zimbabwean adults speak English--it's taught in schools from the early grades on--but donated works such as Shakespeare and the poetry of John Donne are far too difficult for them. What the villagers want are works by African writers--literature they can identify with.

"If you want to encourage a reading population and use of a library, you need books that are appealing, and you need to constantly stock," Ray says. "That's one of the purposes of the book coupon program."

The WLP Book Certificate Program raises money to provide librarians with coupons that can be redeemed at an annual book fair held by the nonprofit Zimbabwe Book Development Council. There, librarians use the certificates to select books needed at their particular facility. "A hundred dollars can go a really long way," Ray says.

While at the Mpumelelo library, Ray took inventory, attempted to weed the collection, sorted new books, and worked with students who came in to check out materials.

The conditions, she says, were appalling. "There are termite tunnels going all around the room. Books get eaten by mice; they get eaten by termites. The shelves lean. When we do inventory, we find things that are unusable." But even under the most adverse conditions, the desire for learning survives. Maggie Hite, WLP's assistant director and volunteer leader for the Zimbabwe trip, saw a moving example of that last year.

"I went to one library in the eastern highlands," she says. "They had built a school and community library. We were shown shelves with the header 'Our Humble Beginnings.' On them were books the parents and teachers had made. Ten years ago they were worried that their children were not learning to read, so they pooled their money and bought paper, a pen, and twine." The concerned parents had gone to a local tourist spot and sifted through trashcans for old magazines.

They wrote stories in longhand, cut pictures from the magazines, and pasted them on the pages to illustrate the stories. Lastly, they bound the pages with twine.

"That made up the first library," Hite says. "That example solidifies how important libraries and literacy can be, and how much people will work for access to that. I kept that image in mind the whole time I was in Zimbabwe."

Volunteers found clever ways to encourage interest in the rural libraries. Two painted murals on the library walls. Some brought gifts--a broach, a box of pencils, a pad of paper--and raffled them off to raise money and pique interest. Another brought a disposable camera and announced to the schoolchildren that she would take pictures of all those who had signed up for library memberships.

Last year, Hite was lucky to witness an astonishing sight, possibly the wave of the future in rural areas: The Electro-Communications Donkey Cart. Developed by the Rural Library and Resource Development Program of Zimbabwe, the cart is a small donkey-pulled bookmobile that can go where motorized vehicles cannot. Aside from books, there are solar panels on board that furnish electricity to run a TV with VCR and a laptop computer.

Hite attended a test run of the donkey cart at a rural school of 100 children. "Ninety percent had never seen a TV," she says. "We played a video, and those kids were completely entranced. Now they use it for entertainment as well as education."

Because of the mounting political tenion, Wendell cancelled the July departure to Zimbabwe, and the WLP is trying to organize a group to go to South America, where the need for libraries is just as urgent.

Wendell has yet to accompany volunteers to Africa. With daughter Julia, 2, and a second child expected in the fall, the time is not quite right. Some day she and her family hope to move there permanently. For now, she is happy to work on WLP projects, and plan an expansion of the volunteer and book certificate programs to other African countries, and to South America.

She's still surprised that Laura Wendell, biopsychologist, somehow turned into Laura Wendell, library advocate, but from the moment she began working on the tiny library in Yikpa, libraries have been her passion. "It's been tremendously rewarding. If I knew then what I know now, I'm not sure I would have had the courage to do it, but I'm very glad I did. I hope to stay involved for many years to come."
For more information about the World Library Partnership, write Laura Wendell, 1028 Bahama Road, Bahama, NC 27503; e-mail her at, or visit the WLP Web site at
Bonnie Lawrence is a copy editor at News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, where she lives. For a number of years she was a feature writer for several newspapers and college magazines.
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