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Books on wheels

By Noella Moshi

The Development and Debate Dinner group people are a motley bunch but they have two things in common: a penchant for active citizenship and a fondness for wine. We meet for dinner once a month and discuss how we can be the change we wish to see. It was during one such dinner that the question of libraries emerged, leading to a serendipitous encounter and a letter from the ministry of education.

Last month’s dinner held some particularly good conversation – the food wasn’t bad either. As self-proclaimed active citizens we gave ourselves “homework”: to select a topic to address with government at a local, provincial or national level, draft a letter, and have it delivered to that MP, and then to present results/progress/ideas to the group at the next meeting.

I went home wondering about the aspects of South Africa that could be improved. How to pick one and where to begin the process of change?

They say the difference between those who succeed and those who fail is passion. If I want to have an impact, it must be in an area close to my heart. As a child, books were my companions and escape, a constant source of adventure, whatever I needed them to be. Wouldn’t it be great if every child had this?

After doing a bit of research I was alarmed to discover that only 8% of schools in South Africa have functional libraries. In 92% of South African schools, children have no access to books. Reading is indispensable for broadening one’s empathy and curiosity, thus this situation has repercussions beyond literacy. I feel the “problem” of libraries has turned into a bit of a crisis.

So I wrote a couple of letters, including to Minister Angie Motshekga’s office, asking how my friends and I could best assist in alleviating the situation. I had conversations with friends and work colleagues, while foraging for information around the general state of affairs:

The minister of education recently agreed to set minimum norms and standards for school infrastructure, including a mandatory library for each school. Although this is commendable, no one seems to have any idea how it will be enforced. There is a severe lack of funding (or perhaps inadequate use of existing funds). The immensity of the problem is frightening. How does one begin to eat this elephant?

“One bite at a time” would be Tad Hasunuma’s response. He’s already begun. I met Hasunuma through a gentleman named Jack Cohen, who has, for many years, been working to provide young children with access to books. I was referred to them one casual Friday afternoon as I wondered out loud how to get my day in court with the ministry of education.

Mr Cohen invited me to his home office, where Hasunuma, Cohen and I sat in a leafy garden, drinking coffee and discussing next steps.

There was such serenity in the surroundings, made more powerful by the quiet determination of the gentlemen whose project I was privileged to participate in. The South African Primary Education Support Initiative or Sapesi is the brainchild of Hasunuma. Sapesi’s main objective is to provide children between the ages of four and six with access to books, through mobile libraries. Hasunuma worked as the managing director of Sony South Africa for many years. When his work here was winding down, he could have retired into the Japanese sunset a comfortable man. Instead he chose to invest his wealth in the education of the South African people.

In 2006 he established Sapesi Japan in order to export buses from Japan and convert them into mobile libraries. Cohen sits on the Sapesi board, whose goal is to have 100 buses by 2015, taking books to 4 500 schools, to reach 1.5 million learners. The criteria for school selection have been based on accessibility and need. The least accessible schools, the ones most in need, have been targeted first.

I learnt, to my surprise, that Sapesi’s primary challenge over the past eight years has been in obtaining government co-operation. Although there is government buy-in to the idea of mobile libraries, the lack of organisation in key provinces means there is not necessarily any follow up after the original meetings and handshakes.

(As we sat there, a white South African, a Japanese man and a Tanzanian woman, discussing the literacy of young South Africans, I wondered how many well-to-do black South Africans were doing the same.)

Hasunuma asked if I had any friends that would be interested in volunteering time to this project. It would add immense value to the initiative if young black South Africans lent themselves as role models for the young readers. I promised to throw the question out into the universe and see if I got any feedback.

Several weeks later, I received an email from the ministry of education stating their support for libraries. I was slightly puzzled (to say the least) that they would feel it necessary to state this obvious fact. I searched for the means to participate in whatever activity their support entailed and found nothing clear in the letter.

But I was not back to square one. Learning about the great work Sapesi does has given me a means to add value. While our school libraries are being upgraded to an acceptable standard, mobile libraries will be a simple and effective interim solution.

The next mobile library outing from Johannesburg will be in February 2013. If you have read to this point, it may just be the case that you are interested in becoming a part of this story. Please do let me know.