Portola Valley: Book program for African kids illustrates 'power of one'


In 2004 Chris Bradshaw of Portola Valley was on a trip with her family of four to Lesotho, a small mountainous nation completely surrounded by South Africa.

They were "pony trekking" because there were no roads, electricity or running water in the small nation. Becoming bored with the steady plodding of the pony, her high school-age son, Ben, began reading a book he'd pulled from his pack.

Jay Thorwaldson
That book on that pony ride triggered an insight that changed Bradshaw's life, the lives of her family (husband Steve Levin, son Ben and daughter Mariah) and the lives of uncounted children and adults in villages and communities throughout large areas of rural Africa.

She spoke with the headman of the village they were visiting, and he confirmed there was a paucity of books for the children and said he had long wanted a small library.

When back in the United States, she took action. She began exploring ways to collect "gently used" children's books and get them to Africa. She began making connections, locally and in Africa.

Her idea and efforts went viral, in today's tech-world jargon. The result was the creation of a nonprofit organization called the African Library Project -- widely known by its initials, ALP (almost an echo of a mountain-to-climb such projects can seem when starting out).

The project has exploded to the point where books are shipped by large shipping-containers to Zimbabwe, Zambia, Cameroon, Lesotho, Nigeria, Botswana, Swaziland, Malawi, Ghana, South Africa and Sierra Leone. One container is due to be shipped out in mid-October to Sierra Leone.

As of now, ALP has created 1,911 libraries and distributed approximately 2 million books, working with countries and villages over a wide area of Africa. The effort is done in partnership with governments and nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs -- the overseas term for nonprofit organizations. ALP currently has more than 1,300 partners internationally, Bradshaw said.

She said ALP expects soon to surpass 2,000 libraries.

ALP groups have been formed across America and in Canada. Age is no barrier. One effort created 13 libraries, spearheaded by Gordon Simonson, now 88, and his local Lions Club of Northfield, Minn. The "Leo's Club" of Mountain View High School also sponsors a book drive.

"Public buildings are not an African tradition," Bradshaw noted, which makes the achievement even more phenomenal. Each community provides the space, forms a committee and names a librarian, she said. The libraries often are in schools.

ALP will be holding a fundraising celebration Saturday, Oct. 8, from 5 to 9 p.m. at the Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club, 2900 Sand Hill Road in Menlo Park.

The event is, appropriately, called Harambee!, the Swahili term translated as "working together for a common purpose," or "collaborating on a common goal." Are you listening, America, in this election year?

There will be feasting, an African marketplace, both a live and a silent auction, traditional African dancing of Zimbabwe and a performance by Stanford University's African a cappella ensemble, "Talisman."

The auction includes an African safari and a week in Botswana at the 2017 "ALP Summit" of those involved in the project, and some local trips.

There are still some openings for the Harambee! event, Bradshaw reported this week. Details are online at

The raw facts underlying the importance of ALP remain as a reality, outlined on the ALP website:

• Most African children grow up without books, while U.S. bookshelves and landfills overflow with books no longer read.

• Africa has the highest percentage of illiteracy in the world.

• Books are the key to increasing literacy, and literacy is the No. 1 tool out of poverty.

• Many African teachers teach reading, writing, math and English without even a single book to use as a resource.

• Many adult Africans lose their ability to read due to a lack of reading materials.

Much of Bradshaw's work has paralleled a priority of the United Nations, which decreed 2003-2012 the "United Nations Literacy Decade." The idea was "to underscore the importance of literacy and basic education as major tools in building a cohesive and peaceful society for the 21st century."

Bradshaw said she fell in love with Africa in the early 1970s, when she spent her junior year in college studying in Sierra Leone and traveling.

My own personal interest in Africa was stimulated some years back when my partner, Patricia, learned of a planned trip by a social-worker colleague at Folsom State Prison, Charles Odipo, and his brother and sister to their home village of Yimbo in Kenya. The trip was to dedicate a library, funded by the fledgling Friends of Yimbo group to honor their father, who created the local Muguna Primary School and a regional high school.

The trip was life-changing. Each of us in the small group of 14 lugged an extra suitcase containing about 50 pounds of books.

On my return to Palo Alto life, I heard of Bradshaw's work and met with her to explore links between the Yimbo group and her immensely larger project, and to encourage her to add Kenya to her list of nations. The Yimbo group still exists and funds scholarships and local micro-economic activities.

Kenya recently joined the list of African countries receiving books and creating libraries.

There also are several upcoming book drives, including three in Palo Alto and one in Portola Valley, for the Tom Mboya Memorial Hospital, Kenya; Kamasengre Mixed Secondary, Kenya; the Rapogi Mixed Primary School, Kenya; and the Kitere Primary, Wanyama Mixed Secondary, Kenya.

Bradshaw's son, Ben, who pulled out that fateful book on his pony trek, is now 26 and works with a Boston-based consulting group. Yet he has a broader vision, Bradshaw said.

"His goal is to do something more important than pulling out a book in Lesotho."

As if that wasn't enough.

It triggered the proverbial "power of one" in a person of initiative and vision, which blossomed into the power of many, reaching across the world.

Former Weekly Editor Jay Thorwaldson can be emailed at He also writes periodic blogs at

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