Africa changes you forever like nowhere on earth. Once you have been there, you will never be the same. But how do you begin to describe its magic to someone who has never felt it? How can you explain the fascination of this vast, dusty continent whose oldest roads are elephant paths? Could it be because Africa is the place of all our beginnings, the cradle of mankind where our species first stood upright on the savannahs of long ago. From “Here I am, where I belong”, Brian J. Ackman
When book executive Tom Warth visited a Uganda library and noticed there were few if any books, there was no question what the next chapter of his life would look like. In 1988, Warth founded ‘Books for Africa’, a non-profit, with the mission to end book famine in Africa through collaboration with worldwide donors, publishers, and American and African partners. The BFA founder was inspired to create a system for collecting discarded books from American schools and libraries. His dream was to ship donated ‘good’ books to children in Africa. BFA collects, hand sorts, and ships books, computers, tablets, and library enhancement materials to every country in Africa.
The organization’s vision is an African continent rich in readers in classrooms, during their leisure time in libraries, and throughout universities providing career paths and opportunities for infinite possibilities. BFA supplies books in English, French, and many national languages along with computers and tablets with digital contents, postsecondary materials, and supplies to create fun and welcoming academic learning spaces.
BFA is headquartered in St. Paul, MN with warehouses in St. Paul and Marietta, GA (Atlanta). Despite the COVID19 pandemic, racial unrest in major cities, lockdowns, and school closures all around the globe in 2020, the organization did quite well. More than $3.2 million was raised in the same year to ship these books to the students of Africa. 3.1 million books (67 containers; 20 tons of quality books in various categories were shipped to 28 African countries). 51 million books have filled cargo containers since BFA’s beginnings. Last year’s book shipments were valued at approximately 40 million dollars in addition to 167 computers and e-readers containing nearly 300,000 digital books and 6 law and human rights libraries to 20 African countries.
Directors, distinguished Board members (50% from African diaspora), thousands of volunteers, individual contributors, philanthropic foundations, and generous corporate donors incorporate their vision and are motivated to eventually make their endeavors a global phenomenon. The cost is approximately 90 cents a book with the sponsor paying 50 cents and other donors picking up the 40 cents.
Pat Polinski is known for running a tight ship. As executive director for the multi-million-dollar non-profit whose benefactors are thousands of miles away and who leads an organization that at times has to navigate 200 plus different dialects in one country alone, he won’t deny the frequent roadblocks. “No question there are challenges. Someone must do the work on the other end. There are different systems in each country although they belong to the same continent. The books are valuable, but more important, the books belong to the children. We are bridging assets, making meaningful connections, bringing a little joy to the children who especially live in the rural areas on the outskirts of major cities. We have succeeded through ‘the power of perseverance’.”
He will admit there are times one could become discouraged, but he keeps the faith, accentuate the positives, and knows just how important the work of BFA is. He reports to a Board of Directors who believe in the mission, love books, and don’t give up. What’s that old adage, “where there’s a will, there’s a way!” The director draws from the strengths of the business world and that of other non-profit groups.
Newly elected BFA Board President, Attorney Mike Essien recalls a trip to Nigeria where Pat and he visited the schools where the books had arrived. One location was 7 miles from where he was born. A benefactor, now he marvels at the rewards he gains by bringing books to the children of Africa. “Africa had tradition and culture before colonization and imperialism robbed us of our identity and countries’ resources. There was a protocol; an order about how we carried out law and acknowledgement of connection and our ancestors. There were just certain things you could and couldn’t do.”
On June 26th, a new warehouse the size of a football field was celebrated in Atlanta. The Keynote address was delivered by Hilda Suka-Mafudze, the African Union ambassador to the U.S. “No development tool is more effective than education and literacy, the ambassador would announce citing former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. When people are able to access education, they can break free from the cycle of poverty.
“For BFA, it’s all about empowerment, Polinski submits. Sharing the wealth that will in turn help people help themselves. It’s about collaboration and making connections with people who have a common purpose. We have a community of doers and are so grateful for their support.”
Current and former donors and sponsors include:
Amphora; Better World Books; Bookey App; Capstone; Charity Navigator; Charter Textbooks (My Words Company); Combined Federal Campaign; Cooroo; Course Hero; Department of Defense; Follett; Friends of Nigerian Community, St. Paul; Google; Guide Star; Hands On Atlanta; Locator X; Merek; National Geographic; former Minneapolis mayor, Sharon Sayles; the Sir Emeka Offer Foundation (SEOF); The US Agency for International Development (USA ID); Thomson Reuters; UPS; World Computer Exchange; World Reader; World Vision; ZEP.