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Without books,

history is silent,

literature dumb,

science crippled,

thought and

speculation

at a standstill.


Henry David Thoreau
Founded by director Laura Wendell to support the belief that libraries empower individuals and enrich communities, WLP administers various programs, including Inform the World, a program that sends volunteers to developing countries to assist and train librarians in communities with a vast and pressing need for information.

"Through our partnerships, such as that with the Rural Libraries and Resources Development Programme in Zimbabwe, we mobilize the power of information to make the world a better place for all," said Maggie Hite, assistant director of WLP. "The partnership concept is key. We don't want to come across as a bunch of pushy Americans telling others what we think they need in terms of help. We work to focus on their needs to create sustainable, community-based libraries."

"I read about the program and jumped at the chance to experience another culture, exchange ideas and learn something new," Stevenson said.

While many Americans look forward to summer vacations of relaxation and respite from work, Stevenson spent long hours helping her host librarian organize and restore materials and raise money to support the small library that serves the 10,000 people in the rural, impoverished community about 80 miles north of Bulawayo.

Most of the families Stevenson encountered were comprised of mothers and their many–on average between six to 10–children who operated homesteads to support themselves. Many of the fathers traveled to Bulawayo or capital city Harare to work and visited their families every few weeks. Children attend school from kindergarten through seventh grade at the Nkayi Primary School, comprised of 800 students, 19 teachers and one headmaster. Families must pay tuition and purchase uniforms and supplies. Very few children continue their education because of the costs; in fact, many leave school to work in the city homes of wealthy families.

Although the library was on school property, it served the community as well. Stevenson's hostess, fourth-grade teacher Nomalanga Nowenya, served as librarian but was not paid an additional salary. She was assisted by a community member, also not paid. Another volunteer operated the "donkey-cart library," a primitive bookmobile that traveled throughout the community with about 50 books for people to borrow. For an additional fee, children could gather at the electro-communications library cart to watch television or videos.

The annual library fee of $5 for adults and $2 for children was in Zimbabwean dollars where $40 Zim equal $1 U.S. The average annual income for families is about $600 U.S. The illiteracy rate is about 90 percent. Amazingly, Stevenson recruited 95 new members to the library, bringing the total to 318.

One of the most successful fund-raising efforts she conducted was to take a picture of each library member to hang in the library. Because cameras are so rare, many joined just to see themselves in a photograph.

"Martha was instrumental in providing practical, hands-on assistance," Hite said. "She was creative and determined to help the people understand the importance of the library to the town. She did so by integrating herself into the community. Despite being a foreigner, people were drawn to her, and she made them feel welcome in their own library. In the short time there, her hard work paid off."

Stevenson painstakingly repaired 105 books to add to the collection of about 2,000 items, which included novels, children's books, some nonfiction and math books, books in Ndebele, the native language, and outdated newspapers and magazines from around the world.

The hard work wasn't limited to the confines of the library. Stevenson had to adjust to a whole new way of living. The living conditions were crude, to say the least. Teachers lived in cement buildings on school grounds, where the comforts of electricity and running water were absent. A hole in the floor of a separate building served as the lavatory. Despite the chilly winter weather, only a metal bucket into which burning food was fed offered heat until bedtime.

"I thought I knew what to expect when I left home," Stevenson said, "but you can't really know until you actually experience it. Even carrying water from the well was a challenge. The women there would carry two huge containers in their arms with one on their head, and I struggled to carry one. I ended up paying someone to do my laundry, which benefited us both."

Like many of the native teachers, Stevenson would travel to Bulawayo on the weekends. There, she met up with her American colleagues, and they would sightsee and enjoy the temporary reprieve and comforts of a hotel. But, the frustrations were far more significant than dirty clothes or bugs on the food. Stevenson eventually adjusted to this way of life, but she never got used to the deplorable state of health care.

"I could never have fully comprehended what an 'AIDS epidemic' means until traveling to Zimbabwe," Stevenson said. "It is a huge problem because so much unsafe sex occurs with the men working in the cities and a government that refuses to acknowledge the situation. As a result, there is a growing number of orphans in the country but no orphanages to take them in. These are often the students who leave school to work. They do it to survive."

After a fall from a train split open her chin, she was more afraid of a visit to a clinic than the permanent scar it would leave.

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