Long journey lands treasure in Africa

EDUCATION BEAT

Books: It took years, but a UMBC professor's dream of sending books to help stem illiteracy in Africa eventually has come to fruition.

January 10, 1999|By MIKE BOWLER | MIKE BOWLER,SUN STAFF

IT TOOK WILLIE B. Lamouse-Smith the better part of a decade to make a small dent in Africa's book famine.

But finally, the precious consignment arrived one day last fall at Makerere University in Uganda -- about 250,000 books and journals, with 34 typewriters, collected by Lamouse-Smith from generous Marylanders and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County library.

Lamouse-Smith, 63, professor and chairman of UMBC's department of Africana studies, began collecting the books nine years ago because he saw a connection between illiteracy in post-colonial Africa and its bloody conflicts.

"What is happening in Sierra Leone, for example, might not be happening if education were available to all Africans," Lamouse-Smith said the other day in his office at UMBC, where he has worked for 23 years.

"How can you have development, how can you have knowledge of yourself and your place in the world if you are not educated? It starts with reading."

Lamouse-Smith (pronounced la-moo-SAY) had been a sociology professor at Makerere in the late 1960s, when the university was a beacon in East Africa. Some called it "Africa's Harvard." But ruthless dictatorships (Uganda was the home of infamous ruler Idi Amin) and civil wars reduced Makerere to a "shadow of what it was," Lamouse-Smith said.

"These books were needed by scholars, teachers, librarians and researchers. Any books would be welcome, all across the academic spectrum, in addition to fiction. And used books were no problem at all.

"Books are a treasure to Africa, but most of the governments don't have the means, as much as they want their people to be educated."

Forging a partnership with Tarsis B. Kabwegyere, a former student now teaching at Makerere, Lamouse-Smith approached UMBC library director Larry Wilt, who began setting aside duplications, academic journals and other material his staff would eventually discard.

"For us, it was an ideal way to move this material," Wilt said. "It made us feel good that the books and journals weren't wasted, that they were going somewhere where they were truly needed."

Meanwhile, several UMBC professors donated books and journals. A truckload of medical books came from Lamouse- Smith's daughter in Pittsburgh. Across town, Johns Hopkins historian Philip Curtin booked in.

As the collection grew, Lamouse-Smith worried about the expensive journey by ship and rail to Kampala, Uganda's capital. He paid more than $8,000 in storage fees. "I got way behind on the storage," he said. He injured his lower back lifting a pile of books. He began to despair.

This was an informal enterprise, conducted outside formal channels, without telephone solicitors, public relations and tax accountants. Perhaps that's why the professor couldn't open doors in his search for shipping funds. Major foundations, the United Nations, even the U.S. government either ignored Lamouse-Smith or politely declined.

Then came the Danes. "Out of the blue," said Lamouse-Smith, the Danish embassy in Uganda agreed to pick up the $27,000 shipping tab. Kabwegyere exultantly faxed the good news to Baltimore, and soon the books and typewriters -- they'd been replaced by computers at UMBC -- were on their way.

At Makerere University, where professors' salaries average about $400 a month, Lamouse-Smith's name is being stamped as the donor in each of the books.

The professor is not sure he wants to do another collection, though he might, "provided some other good heart would take over the financial burden."

Still, there's the satisfaction of having helped a nation with a 48 percent adult literacy rate and a broken university.

"I haven't been going to church, so this is my offertory," the professor says.

Pub Date: 1/10/99

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