Bookfeeding Project offers more than books to disadvantaged communities worldwide

Zambia Kanyama library is open

The Bookfeeding Project is an association aimed at establishing educational hubs and libraries in disadvantaged communities worldwide. Although it has an impressive network of libraries and community centres it is driven by big dreams and a strong, selfless desire to help. I spoke to its co-founder Alena Machálková about how the project works, what it has achieved and her hopes for the future.  

“The Bookfeeding project is a volunteer-led organization that tries to help communities across the world to have a library that would serve as an educational hub or community centre, where the locals can meet and gain new skills and have access to information and books and knowledge as such. We don’t choose where we will build a library but wait for a call from the given community. They apply by contacting us via our website or email address and in this way we establish long-term cooperation with communities around the world and we build libraries based on their needs.”

You co-founded this project. How long ago?

“The first library was built in 2010 and in 2011 we registered the charity in Scotland and last year –because of Brexit – we registered it in Germany as well.”

You have 20 libraries in 12 different states and are overwhelmed by requests for more – to I take it the locals have responded with enthusiasm?

Chiparamba Zambia workshop | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

“Indeed, we try not have one style of library for all, but really work with the community to build a library tailored to their needs. So if the community is focussing on the education of small children we try to prepare the type of books and workshops that will help them with that goal. We have communities where we work with sports associations – footballers, baseball players, we have workshops teaching people skills to help them set up their own business – be it bee-keeping or sun drying fruits. We really try to respond to the needs of individual communities and so every library has different workshops and a different focus.”

When working closely with the locals do you have a problem with the language barrier or cultural differences?

“Of course, there are cultural differences and as for the language barrier we are an international group of volunteers and in the countries where we are active, mainly in Africa, they speak more languages that we do here in the Czech Republic or Europe. Due to their colonial past people in these countries either speak English or French and some of them speak Spanish and Portuguese. We focus mainly on English and French speaking countries and there is never a problem to find somebody – we call them community leaders – who speaks the language well. These are usually the people who apply for the library, gather information from the local community and tell us what the needs of the community are.”

Zambia Kanyama library is open | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

What states are you active in now? Where do you have libraries and do the projects in them differ greatly?

“We have libraries in Sierra Leone, Ghana, we are launching one in Burkina Faso, two libraries in Senegal and then it is mostly East Africa, Kenya, Tanzania, Burundi, and in South Africa it is Zimbabwe and Zambia. In some countries we have two or three libraries and try to establish a local partnership among them, so that they exchange books and ideas and even with countries where there is only one library, we have a kind of group where all the libraries can share ideas across borders. As for the workshops, we have workshops for small children, reading classes, and so on, and in Zambia we have a workshop for students where we teach them to produce their own newspaper, they learn graphics and how to write well, we have workshops for young girls and women in general, so for instance we have workshops on producing reusable sanitary pads which women can start making as a business, there are workshops on extending food shelf life for example with the aid of a dryer for sun-dried mango and tomatoes.”

You lead a very multi-cultural team. How did they come together?

Chiparamba Zambia workshop | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

“It took a few years. I studied in Scotland and in South Africa and there are a lot of enthusiastic people who want to do things like this. Whenever I mentioned the Bookfeeding project a lot on people jumped on the bandwagon and stuck with us, so people from different parts of the world joined the initiative, some stayed longer, some for a shorter time. We send volunteers to our libraries and some people just respond after finding out about us, and say they want to volunteer for a few months or weeks. We have volunteers from around the world and that’s what binds us – a passion for volunteering and helping communities across the globe.”

So you are taking volunteers? If someone is interested they just need to contact you?

“Indeed, we still have a lot of potential for growing and there are many more communities interested in opening libraries and cooperating with us, we have more requests than we can meet at the present time, so if there is anybody out there interested we are always willing to take new volunteers who can help with fundraising, administrative work or going to those libraries and implementing some of those workshops.”

Chiparamba Zambia workshop | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

Why did you chose Africa? You said you studied there and fell in love with Africa – what captivated you?

“You know, we always talk about Africa as one space, but we divide Europe into fifty different countries and for me Africa is exactly that –more than 50 different countries with different cultures, there’s a huge diversity when it comes to language, food, culture and for me it is an unexplored region. The people are very hard-working and very welcoming and hospitable. I studied for a year in Asia, I’ve done research in South America, but somehow Africa –with its people and culture - captured my heart. I wanted to study development management but I didn’t want to study it from the Western perspective here in Europe, so that’s why I chose to study it in South Africa.”

How has your time in Africa changed you? What did you bring into your own life from African traditions and culture?

Kids love reading,  Uganda | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

“I think the biggest change is that I realized how privileged I was. Not just that if there is a problem when I travel that I can go to the Czech embassy or that of any other EU member state and get help and come back home. But the privilege of my background. In Africa I saw how hard these people work to better themselves and what I am doing now is a way of paying something back, if I can put it that way. I am happier with what I have now, and try not to complain about everything – I think I became more humble.”

Was there a moment that sticks in your memory – a moment that made you feel it was all worth the effort?

“Our first library was set up in Madagascar – that was before we were even registered. I was travelling there and one lady asked me to bring a few books and then I asked my friends in Scotland if they would help me collect a few books  and within a few weeks I had 300 kilograms of books in my room – I couldn’t move! And when we opened a library in Madagascar the locals were so enthusiastic, and the kids kept coming. And then three years later one of the girls who visited the library when I was there, she was about fifteen at the time, wrote me an email and said –I am in Belgium studying to be a teacher, I got a scholarship because I learnt French. The volunteers whom we sent there helped her make the right connections and file for a scholarship. So for me it was so good to learn that from this distant village in a community where most people can’t even read this one girl had managed to go to study in Belgium – thanks also to the library and the volunteers there. She is planning to go back and work not only with the library but teach the kids in the local community. For me that was one of the rewarding moments – seeing that we can make an impact.”

Does that mean that people can donate books as well?

Exams are coming,  study hard,  Zambia | Photo: archive of Alena Machálková

“Yes, we have a number of collection points around Europe, however at the moment, due to the increased prices for shipment and everything, it is better if they send the books directly to one of the libraries. We can tell them what kind of books are needed. But now, also because of the Covid crisis, we prefer if people donate money and we can buy the books in the given place, in the local language, from local authors and in this way also support the local economy. But if somebody has English or French books we do have collection points –one in Prague, one in Frankfurt, one in Aberdeen and Edinburgh –on our website there is a list of all the collection points we have around Europe.”

That’s a very impressive network. What are your plans for the future?

“I would like to continue building libraries but also work more with the communities and libraries we already have. We have tons of ideas and plans but the capacity is not there yet because we are all volunteers for now so I can only do it in my free time. Ideally I would like to work for Bookfeeding fulltime and maybe work with the communities on even more projects and workshops to create a long-lasting relationship with those communities and see the impact.”

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