In a world where books are everywhere, it’s difficult to imagine them as a scarce commodity. But when Minter Creek Elementary Principal Steve Leitz visited schools in Namibia, that’s exactly what he noticed. Hardly any student ever was holding a book.

“How can you teach without books?” Leitz asks. “Each school there has $5 a year for supplies. You can go into libraries that have nothing but bricks waiting to hold books.”

Leitz’ trip to Namibia was part of a project sponsored by USAID called the Ondao Mobile Schools. Because of their semi-nomadic lifestyles, the bulk of the population did not receive an education. That would have required sending the students hundreds of miles away from home.

Pacific Lutheran University, in collaboration with Norway, University of Namibia, and with USAID funding, created about 30 mobile schools, spread over 200 miles, that can be easily packed up and moved to new locations. More than 75 teachers were trained, and hundreds of students received basic education since 1999.

Leitz participated in the training of school administrators. His wife, Paula, manages the USAID grant at PLU. Last school year, the couple also hosted two administrators from Ondao at their home and at Minter Creek.

“They visited students here, taught their culture to students, talked to teachers,” Leitz says. “When they saw how kids are learning to read, or snuggle up in a corner with a book, the idea for ‘Libraries-in-a-Tub’ was born.”

Minter Creek students assembled the first such portable library as a sample, collecting book donations, organizing them by reading level categories (not by age because all classrooms have mixed ages), and created art for the lids of the containers.

The most challenging part, Leitz said, was getting money to buy reference books such as dictionaries. English is the official language in Namibia because the country has 20 to 25 native tongues, and by fourth year English is taught—but teachers have expressed frustrations due to lack of reference materials. The last piece of the libraries, books by African authors, will be purchased in the country, so students are exposed to their own culture as well as others.

Leitz describes the tremendous conditions faced by the African teachers. There is no electricity or water, the tent classrooms get as hot as 100 degrees, and first grade could have students from age 6 to 15. “The circumstances are incredible,” he says.

Leitz was getting ready for another training trip at the beginning of this January, and the delivery of the first batch of Libraries-in-a-Tub. Some of the teachers have to walk for a few days to come to these trainings, he says, to immerse themselves in a few days of intensive learning.

More than 50 tubs were assembled since Minter’s book drive began. Other schools, local churches and scout troops joined in, collecting 7,000 books. Leitz says close to $10,000 is needed for shipping, ground transportation once in Africa, and purchasing the native books—and the goal is to deliver all the libraries in the spring.

The NAME (Namibia Education) Foundation, a small group of which the Leitzes are members, will organize the shipment of a 20-foot container, which will include other books and supplies sent to Namibia, along with the portable libraries.

“Now the key hurdle is to collect funds to ship the libraries,” Leitz says. And as much as the task seems mammoth, Leitz hopes Libraries-in-a-Tub will become a yearly endeavor. “While AIDS is being talked about, education needs to be the focus as well,” he says. “You can put up all the posters you want, but if they can’t read them?”

For the Minter Creek students, the experience was an eye opener. The more they learned about the Namibian kids, the more they realized how much all the children in the world are alike. Building a bridge to those worlds through books crosses any language and cultural barriers indeed.

How you can help
Individuals and organizations interested in sponsoring Libraries-in-a-Tub for Namibian children are encouraged to call Steve Leitz at 857-6573, email sleitz@harbornet.com, or send monetary contributions to NAME Foundation, 10118 80th Ave Ct NW, Gig Harbor 98332 (mention Ondao Library Project with the contribution).

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