This UOW graduate and iAccelerate resident is collecting books to send back to his hometown so kids can grow up with a love of reading. 

Alfred Chidembo’s childhood story starts like a bad stand-up routine: he walked every day to school 15 miles down an unpaved road, had no library, didn’t have any shoes. Maybe there’ll be a punchline; ‘uphill both ways!’ he’ll crack, and we can laugh at the preposterousness of it. The punchline never comes.

He’s just talking about ordinary poverty, and how even in the most famously literate and well-educated country in Africa, children still grow up without books. He’s also telling me how he’s going to help fix that.

“I grew up in Mavhurazi village,” he tells me during his lunch break from his work on advanced materials at the Institute for Superconducting and Electronic Materials, one of the few gaps he’ll have in his schedule this week. He works in the field of supercapacitors and novel materials like graphene. It’s cutting-edge stuff, and a hot topic in Universities and industry think-tanks worldwide.

“You have the capital, Harare, and from there the main road that runs all the way through to Mozambique.”

He has what I suppose is an engineer’s sense of space; he concisely traces maps on the table with his fingertips to keep me from getting lost.

“Near the border, there’s a side road, and it’s just 20 kilometres down that, but it’s worlds apart. It’s one of the poorest villages you will find. They don’t even have electricity. It’s over two hundred kilometres from Harare, a two-hour drive–well, more than a two-hour drive, excuse me.”

I wonder at what radius from the capital city it becomes acceptable to not have electricity or books. On an equivalent journey outward from the centre of Sydney you would rarely pass through an area not serviced by the NBN.

“I started off six years old at this school; now 30 years later I go back and I think that maybe things will have changed. But nothing has, not a thing. It’s the same.”

“So we decided to collect books to help them start a school library.”

Losing momentum

“Our education system used to be one of the best in Africa. My generation really benefited from that system, and it gave us the ability to do so much. That’s why you’ll find Zimbabweans all over the place!”

The system he’s talking about was built by the nascent Zimbabwean government in the wake of their 15-year guerrilla war for independence. In 1980 it enshrined free and compulsory primary and secondary education for all Zimbabwean children.

It was a revolution in a racially segregated education system where, back in the 50s, minority white school children received 21 times more funding per capita than black children. Literacy rates and educational outcomes for black Zimbabweans–hence the whole nation–skyrocketed, but the exact extent of the change is hard to quantify. Attempts to do so have been dogged by incomplete data and methodological instabilities.

There is a general consensus the educational promise of 1980 hasn’t been fulfilled. Zimbabwe’s recent history has been marred by economic downturn and disaster, including the 2008 cholera outbreak and 2009 demise of the Zimbabwean dollar. Teachers now earn as little as US$400 a month, putting them below the poverty line, and the economic pressure on the school system extends to basic teaching infrastructure.

Alfred agrees that for a largely non-urbanised country where nearly half the population is aged 14 and under, any weakening of the teaching system or literacy rates is an educational time-bomb.

“When I went back to Zimbabwe, I talked to the headmaster at the school I went to and you know what , he said ‘if you can help out with anything, it would be great–even a red pen for the teachers’. That’s how bad it can be.

“It’s come to the point that Book Aid International stated that up to 50 per cent of kids don’t finish primary school. That’s a recent statistic, we’re not talking about the old days.” He shakes his head.

“There’s a crack there, and if no-one is doing anything about that, all these people will go through the crack. They’re going to grow up and they’re not going to be useful to the country, to their communities.”

I don’t ask what the old days were, but I can guess. Looking at Book Aid’s site later the only statistic that sticks with me is that a child born to a mother who can read is 50 per cent more likely to live past the age of five.

A not-so-easy plan

“I contacted Book Aid to see what I could do to help. They told me that they could help us get books, but we’d need a library for them to go to.” He chuckles at the irony. “So we started out saying: let’s get 2,000 books and ship them over.”

That was the start of Aussie Books for Zim, the charity Alfred runs with his wife and a group of dedicated volunteers. They aim to set up libraries in schools that have none.

“We got 560 books from Vinnie’s straight away which made us think: surely 2,000 is going to be too easy. In fact, we got there in three weeks. So how about we get 10,000 books?” He opens his hands in a gesture of ‘why not?’

“Instead of setting up one library, let’s do more, let’s do five.”

There doesn’t sound like there’s anything easy about moving 11 tons of books across the world, I quip. The figure is made up for comedic effort; an impossible task.

“You’re not far off, that’s good.”

The adulation makes me feel like a student in the front row of class. Alfred’s good that way.

“It’s very close to eleven tons. To ship them we had to buy a container, though: just a 20-foot container, because larger than that and it would be impossible to move around the country in Zimbabwe,” he says matter-of-factly. “We just need to raise enough money to get it over to Africa now.”

“And at the end of the day, the easy option, 2,000 books, doesn’t touch so many lives. If you go with 25,000 books you can set up five libraries–that’s about 500 kids in each primary school, for 2,500 students all up. We want all kids to be able to pick up a book and read whenever they feel like it. To evoke that passion inside them.”

Changing lives

We finish our time discussing the lack of libraries in light of a parallel issue and frequent subject of exploitative charity fundraising: food security. ‘Give a man a fish and feed him for a day, but teach a man to fish and feed him for his whole life’, goes the saying. I ask myself if this is the educational equivalent of teaching kids to fish.

Unsurprisingly, there is a large and diverse body of research on the effects of books on child development and outcomes later in life, and without exception they all indicate that books have a positive effect on children. One international study found that the mere presence of books in the home gives children an advantage equivalent to three years’ bonus schooling.

“But you know what?” he asks. “What this project has done is it has changed us. For my wife and I and the volunteers we work with, we have been changed by the generosity of everyone.”

“We’ve had donations of books, free storage; Kiama Pre-school had a bike-a-thon and raised over 600 dollars, all these little children pedalling away to help us!”

“Actually,” he says as we are parting. “There is one thing I like to do whenever I speak to anyone, and that is ask them: do you have any ideas that could help with the project?”

I’m not sure what to say at first. It’s the first time a charity has ever asked me a question like this, but I suppose it figures: that a library builder would find value in ideas.

Find out more: Aussie Books for Zim – for more information on the project.

This story originally featured in UOW’s The Stand. Story by John Purvis. Photos by Aussie Books for Zim and Paul Jones

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