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Students send 10,000 books to fire-ravaged African university

Virginia Tech, Radford and community pitch in to fill African library

The Roanoke Times

By Travis Williams 381­1643 | Posted: Saturday, November 19, 2016 4:00 am

MCCOY — Thousands of books turned the first page of a global journey at Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farms Friday afternoon.

More than 20 volunteers from Tech and the community worked to pack about 10,000 bound works onto vehicles with the goal of them ending up at the Mzuzu University in Malawi, Africa, which lost about 45,000 titles in a fire last December.

Ralph Hall, a Tech professor of public and international affairs, said Friday’s organization and packing session came after about a year’s worth of donations from the communities of Tech and Radford University, as well as Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.

From Tech, books are slated to head to the international non­ profit Project Hope in Winchester where they will be packed into containers and shipped, Hall said.

Student organizer Ashley Taylor, center, along with fellow student volunteers sorted, stacked and loaded the donated books for shipment Friday.

Tech graduate student Ashley Taylor, who took a lead role in the coordination of the multi­group book drive, described Friday’s sendoff.

“It’s a celebration,” said Taylor. “It’s just the realization that this big scale thing can really happen.”

Mzuzu University was established in 1997 by an Act of Parliament as Malawi’s second university, according to the university library initiative’s website. It is located in the northern part of the country and current has more than 3,600 students from all 28 districts of Malawi.

Tech’s relationship with Malawi dates back about 20 years when a shift in the country’s political landscape allowed Professor Emeritus Josiah Tlou to conduct research and implement a civic education program there, according the Tech’s website.

Today, there are a variety of efforts from Southwest Virginia happening in Malawi, including Tech’s College of Engineering and Carilion School of Medicine’s incubator project and multiple study abroad opportunities for education students from both Tech and Radford University.

Many of those opportunities are navigated by the multidisciplinary program TEAM (Technology, Education, Advocacy, and Medicine) Malawi, which includes interested faculty and students for both university, as well as community members.

Hall was in Malawi working with a study abroad program at Mzuzu University when its library caught fire last December.

“It was like a tinder box waiting to go up,” Hall said. “There was no way they could stop this.”

Hall said to understand the importance of the library one must understand the living conditions in Malawi, where he estimated only about 10 percent of the population has electricity.

“So one of their most valuable assets in terms of learning was gone a couple of hours,” Hall said.
Upon his return stateside, Hall said he mentioned the library fire to the other members of TEAM Malawi. “We all basically said, we have to do something to try and help,” Hall said.

A Fort Chiswell native, Taylor said her experience traveling with the school to Malawi was the main reason she is pursuing a doctorate in engineering educations. She said she hopes to one day teach in a place like the African country.

More than 20 volunteers packed up books bound for Africa.

Taylor said being a student herself, as well as having met students the Mzuzu University, helped her empathize with those impacted by the library fire.

“It’s really easy to imagine how devastating it would be,” Taylor said. “Some things are the same all ar

ound the world — students just want to learn.”

Taylor downplayed her role in the collection of the thousands of books and said the hardest part was really just keeping track of the more than 100 people who had pitched in.

“I’ve just kind of rallied the village and it honestly has not been a hard task because people are excited about it,” she said.

One of those she rallied was Radford University criminal justice professor Jack Call, who is also a member at Blacksburg Presbyterian Church.

Call said the church, which has had a long­time relationship with Malawi, had Taylor speak about the project. He said knowing Radford’s College of Humanities and Behavioral Sciences was soon relocating to a new building, he reached out to his colleagues in hopes of collecting any discarded books.

Students and community volunteers came together for the effort.

He said their efforts resulted into dozens of boxes of books being shipped to Tech to use for the project.

Barbara Michelsen, the chair of the church’s committee overseeing the Malawi project, said the church was involved in multiple projects in the country and she hoped the book drive would spurn more community members to join the efforts in Malawi.

Hall said as the books amounted he realized they were quickly outgrowing their storage space near his office on campus and relocated the books to space volunteered by the school’s Aerospace and Ocean Engineering Department at Kentland Farms where they were packed Friday.

Hall said the books are expected to arrive at the Mzuzu University by February and he hoped the next project would be for students from Tech to begin design a new library for Mzuzu University.

Though excited to help the students in Malawi, he said one of his favorite parts of this project had been seeing the people New River Valley come together in the effort.

“We’re working internationally, but in the process of doing that we’ve extended out relations with the community here,” Hall said.

“It makes you realize how small the world is.”