PUBLICATIONS Inside Illinois Vol. 27, No. 9, Nov. 1, 2007
UI employee donates books to struggling African libraries
Sharita Forrest, Assistant Editor
An employee of the UI Press is warming the hearts of people in an African country by donating books to its struggling libraries.
Dennis Roberts, a book designer at the UI for 12 years, joined a group from the First Presbyterian Church of Urbana on its “Shallow Wells” mission trip to Malawi in August. The church sends workers to Malawi every other year to help dig wells to provide residents around the small rural community of Domasi with clean drinking water.
Although not a church member, Roberts said he was intrigued by the project, and asked if he could accompany the group on its trip in August. Roberts said he wondered as he prepared for the journey, “How could I make a personal contribution? What could I add to the mission of the group based on who I am and what I do?”
Naturally, the answer was books – books that would acquaint Malawians with the history, agriculture and people of Illinois. Roberts donated his personal copies of some of the books he had designed, and co-workers contributed other books. The cache, which included books on Abraham Lincoln, Illinois history, folk music and culture and photography, totaled 20 books, enough to fill half a suitcase.
With the help of Donna Mason, who co-led the trip with her husband, the Rev. Don Mason, Roberts selected three libraries in Malawi to receive the books: the University of Malawi Chancellor College Library, the Malawi Institute of Education, and Domasi College of Education.
And when Roberts visited each library to drop off the books, “They were dumbfounded,” Roberts said of the libraries’ staff members. “It was very unusual for them. But they were very excited about it.”
At the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College Library, Roberts was ushered into the office of Dickson Vuwa Phiri, director of the library’s American collection.
“When I told him I was visiting from the U.S., and that I work at the UI Press and wanted to donate books, he looked at me, just stunned, and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re sitting in my office. I was in the U.S. two weeks ago and was in Urbana.’ ”
Coincidentally Phiri had been one of two African librarians among a group of 30 librarians who had visited the Mortenson Center for International Programs on the Urbana campus as part of the U.S. Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program.
During his two-day stay in Urbana, Phiri had visited Arthur, and told Roberts he had been fascinated by the Amish, but lamented that he had no mementos of the community. To Phiri’s great surprise, Roberts then pulled a copy of the UI Press book “Visit to Amish Country” out of his book bag. The book was one of five books to be donated to the University of Malawi library. When Phiri told Roberts that many of the books in the university’s American collection are 30 years old, “It became clear to me how important these book donations would be to students in Malawi,” Roberts said.
Besides delivering books, Roberts spent two days laying brick in the bottom of a shallow well that the church group helped install in the village of Chipawange.
Since his trip, Roberts has shipped five more boxes of books, and a box of past issues of the Journal of American History to Malawi. He also gave a brown bag lunch talk to his co-workers, who donated many of the books.
In one of the “many wonderful coincidences that helped the project along,” Ulemu Malindi, a cultural affairs specialist for the U.S. embassy in Malawi whom Roberts met at a dinner party during his trip, helped make arrangements for Roberts to ship books to an embassy office in Virginia, which then ships them to Malawi at the embassy’s expense.
Roberts, who has footed the bill for most of the shipping costs as well as his Malawi trip, hopes to add more libraries to his distribution list and send shipments monthly.
Roberts wants to talk with anyone in the university community interested in helping continue the donations. "It's all about the wonderful opportunity this can become for building understanding, friendship and cross-cultural pollination."
The Malawian libraries want books on almost any topic, but are keenly interested in current books on computer-related topics relevant to students, books about primary and secondary school education, and modern agriculture and farming practices.
A member of the Urbana City Council, Roberts also is developing a pen pal program between children in Urbana and children in Malawi and hopes to begin a “sister cities” relationship between the communities of Urbana and Zomba. “We have a lot in common,” Roberts said. “One of their primary crops is maize, or corn, just like Illinois. And we’re both university communities.”
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