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Africa’s Unrequited Love for Books and the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award

The author of this blog post was awarded the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award in 2012. If you are interested in applying for this grant, you can find application requirements and deadline information here.

By Fodei Batty

When I first arrived in America to attend graduate school someone asked me what the greatest difference was between attending college in Sierra Leone and America. Without hesitation, I replied…books!

Although we received a good education as any at the University of Sierra Leone –Fourah Bay from some of the most dedicated professors in the world, the infrastructure was inadequate and good books were always in short supply.

Often, the best available texts were placed on hourly course reserves in the library where students spent hours waiting their turn to gain access to them. This did not deter us, however. We were a dedicated bunch; eager learners who strived to absorb anything we could from the precious knowledge within the contents of any books placed at our disposal.

Indeed, we loved books even though we had limited access to good ones. Except for the reference section, much of our university library at Fourah Bay was outdated and stocked with volumes dating back to colonial times. Many years later, things have not improved much. During a visit in 2015, I found the infrastructure in awful shape as ever with bookshelves strewn with old incorrectly shelved books and discontinued volumes. The national archives, which are stored at the university, are also largely lost due to a lack of funds to maintain the collections. It will require a miracle to resuscitate and restore the entire system to a time when Sierra Leone was popularly referred to as “the Athens of West Africa” for its high educational standards.

With this background I was excited to learn, a few years ago, that the African Studies Association and the Africana Librarians Council were offering grants to support book donations to countries in Africa under the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award. I eagerly put an application together and submitted it proposing to solicit and ship donated books to the library at the University of Sierra Leone –Fourah Bay and other institutions. A few months later I was delighted to hear back from Deborah LaFond who wrote on behalf of the ASA Africana Librarians Council to inform me that I was the recipient of the Gretchen Walsh Award for that year.

Soon after I was awarded the grant, I placed an announcement to colleagues across the Quinnipiac University community letting everyone know that I was accepting books for donation projects in Sierra Leone and was thankful and overwhelmed by the positive response that I received from faculty colleagues.

To highlight some examples, the Quinnipiac University School of Nursing sent me hundreds of copies of sometimes brand new books for donation to nursing programs in Sierra Leone. Many faculty members in the nursing program have since continued to contact me each time they have books or some other material to donate for nursing education in Sierra Leone. The donations from the nursing program are particularly noteworthy and invaluable because there are less than 200 qualified medical doctors in Sierra Leone serving a population of over six million; a glaring and disappointing statistic that was much evident during the recent Ebola epidemic.

Colleagues in the College of Arts and Sciences at Quinnipiac, the Quinnipiac University Law School, and many other units across Quinnipiac University were also tremendously supportive after I received the award. Several law professors donated some of the best books and audiovisual materials for legal education, which I shipped directly to the only law school in Sierra Leone. Like the contributions from the nursing school, the books and materials donated by the law school were invaluable because there are less than 200 qualified lawyers in Sierra Leone. Many accused persons often spend years in police custody without trial due to insufficient legal services. The delivery of justice has been exceptionally slow as the country continues to recover from a devastating, decade-long civil war in the 90s. The training and education of more lawyers in the country will certainly help alleviate this dismal reality.

After the original grant money I received under the Gretchen Walsh Award was exhausted, I could not afford additional shipment costs for books so I contacted Books for Africa, a nonprofit operating out of St. Paul Minnesota to accept donated books from me for shipment. Incidentally, Books for Africa are also past recipients of the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award. At present, I still maintain a system in which I accept books and store them in my garage until I can afford to send them out to the Books for Africa warehouse in Atlanta Georgia for onward shipment to Africa.

I have been inundated with donated books ever since but I continue to accept more books knowing they will make an important difference in the lives of others. All of this would not have been possible without the initial call after I received the Gretchen Walsh Book Donation Award. The efforts are a drop in the bucket given the enormous need for books in Sierra Leone and across much of Africa. It is a significant drop, however, that helps make a difference in addressing Africa’s unrequited love for books.

Fodei Batty is an assistant professor of Political Science at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, CT

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