On Sept. 20, we were proudly participating in Books For Africa’s 25th anniversary celebration in downtown St. Paul. Books for Africa is a nonprofit dedicated to promoting literacy in Africa. In its short history, it has sent 29 million books to 48 African countries. For those of us who are part of the new generation of African diaspora and whose lives were changed because of education, our association with BFA is something dear and special.
On that night, many of us discussed our hopes for a peaceful Africa, with its children well-educated and nurtured. It was a happy moment.
Little did we know that few hours later we would hear devastating news from the Horn of Africa that shattered the idealistic dreams of the night before. On Sept. 21, jihadists stormed Nairobi’s upscale shopping center, the Westgate Mall, firing indiscriminately. They killed women and children, along with one of Africa’s most prominent citizens: Kofi Awoonor of Ghana. He was an educator, poet, writer and diplomat. While every life is precious, including the jihadists’, the news of Awoonor’s death at 78 made it personal. He was in Nairobi to do the job he loves: promoting literature at Storymoja Hay Festival, a major cultural and education event.
When we heard of the attack, it brought back memories from our youth. One of us (Asratie Teferra) worked in the U.N. field operation during the Somalia refugee crisis in the 1980s and 1990s, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis were living in refugee camps in Eastern Ethiopia. You could see the stress, sadness and uncertainty of those many women and children, young and old, who lost everything they had. Since then, Somalia, for more than two decades, has borne the brunt of conflicts among warlords, transitional governments and Islamic hard-liners, including the Al-Shabab group responsible for the attack in Kenya. You wondered, all those years ago, how many of the little children in the refugee camps would end up believing in that tragic and destructive ideology. You wondered what it takes to educate and liberate them from the danger of falling into the wrong hands, to give them hope and opportunity.
The other of us (Tom Gitaa) grew up in the cosmopolitan city of Mombasa, Kenya, where many Americans live and make a point to visit when in the region. A young person growing up there experienced people from other countries firsthand and could make up his own mind about them based on those relationships. But not everyone in Africa has that opportunity; for many, the written word is the only way to learn about other people and other ideas. Literacy gives people hope and broadens their perspective.
Just last year, the Ethiopian ambassador to the United States, Girma Birru, said in St. Paul that the good thing about books is that even if they were to be stolen and fall into the hands of those causing chaos in Africa, the worst that can happen is that someone will read the books.
We believe education is the key to African development; the work that groups like Books for Africa do contribute to that goal. But books alone are not the solution. Transforming a society requires a systemic approach, and as a human family, we have a responsibility. Injustice to one is injustice to all. Despite the 29 million books sent by Books for Africa, there are more than 400 million children and youths in Africa who are in need of books.
The attack in Nairobi took the lives of 67 people, wounded many and damaged the lives of untold numbers forever. However, the literacy work must continue to change lives and provide better direction for the youths of Africa. Two weeks have passed since this tragic incident, and the U.S. media has now shifted gears to the budget standoff in Washington, D.C. But we should not forget the lives of the victims in Kenya and of poet Awoonor.
Groups like Books for Africa help achieve the dream of an Africa whose children are educated, and who have hope and a future. It is our future, and it is a cause worth fighting for.
Tom Gitaa, a native of Kenya, is the publisher of the African Community newspaper Mshale in the Twin Cities. Asratie Teferra, a native of Ethiopia, is a trade specialist with Verizon in the Washington, D.C., area and chair of the Ethiopian African 2000 Millennium Group. Both are board members of Books For Africa.