Every year, Oak Bay’s Doug Funk packs his things and heads for Africa. But he doesn’t go empty handed. Since 2009, he has also taken books, and not just a few – tens of thousands. And hes about to do it again. He’s in the process of filling a 12-metre container with about 60,000 titles for shipment in about eight weeks.
Funk is the executive director of the Solon Foundation, a non-sectarian charitable foundation based in Lucerne, Switzerland. For about four months of every year, Funk lives and works in village districts of Zimbabwe, Zambia and Malawi, where he oversees a number of projects, including a literacy program that distributes books to about 139,000 children in 328 schools. Some of the books will once again be used in a library that has been developed by the foundation in the village of Nyanga. That library places a portion of their books into mobile trunk libraries that are in turn taken to schools in even more remote regions. Those trunks are rotated on a regular basis between village schools.
The remainder of the primary level books will be going to the villages of Gwanda, Chibuwe and Neshuro where they will get similar use. The Solon Foundation is working toward establishing permanent libraries in the latter two of those villages.
While the original focus of the literacy program was on the provision of these primary level books for younger readers, Funk’s program has expanded.
“We’ve found that there is a need for tertiary books in these regions,” said Funk. “A lot of people here at home have their old university text books sitting on a shelf, and they’ll never look at them again. In Africa, these books are important tools for continuing education.”
The subject matter for these books might range from mathematics to agriculture to accounting and agriculture, they are all valuable resources in areas where books of this kind are difficult, if not impossible, to come by.
“These books can have an enormous impact on someone in these areas,” said Funk. “Greater than anyone might imagine.”
While some of those university-level books will stay in the villages, they will primarily be sent to the Open University in the capital city of Harare, Zimbabwe.
Funk has piles of books already, however, he is in need of many more. “We’ll be sending the books in December, but need to have them in by November at the latest to allow for sorting and packaging,” said Funk. “Any kind of books, but especially the primary reading level and the tertiary level books (are needed).”
Used cell phones provide a lifeline in rural Africa
When the Solon Foundation sends its shipment of books to Africa this year there will be a few additional boxes inside the shipping container, but these boxes won’t be full of books. Instead, Funk will be cooperating with a new movement to send used cellphones to Zimbabwe and Malawi.
The idea started out as a school project at Camosun College and has evolved into an organization known as Africa Calling. Its founder, Kevin Davis, is passionate about the project and thankful to Funk for his assistance in helping the project take the next steps.
“I took 40 phones over last year, carried in a suitcase, and they were immediately put to use,” said Davis. “It doesn’t matter if the phones are older models, they can use any kind of phone at all. There’s a desperate need.”
Since his last visit, Davis has received requests for 5,000 more phones. Those requests come primarily from two organizations: Childline in Zimbabwe and KASO (Kanengo AIDS Support Organization) in Malawi.
Childline is an organization that offers 24-hour free phone helpline services for children who have been sexually or physically abused or who are being neglected and need help. If they can get to a phone, these children can let volunteers at Childline know where they are and what’s happening – even if those children live in remote, rural villages. The organization then offers advice or can contact authorities to help the child.
Davis’ Africa Calling organization wants to give children access to those phones. “The phones are placed in clinics or schools or anywhere where the children can go and make the call,” he said.
The situation is very similar in Malawi but is compounded by the fact that 12 per cent of the adult population there is HIV positive. Girls aged 15 to 24 have the highest incidence of HIV with every one in seven carrying the disease. That’s primarily due to a lack of information and support for sexual and reproductive health and the fact that many young girls are either sexually abused or forced into very young marriages. “The situation is very serious,” said Davis.
“Giving these girls access to a phone where they can contact (KASO) can save their lives.”
Davis and his volunteers will accept any cellphones and stresses that there’s also a need for chargers of all kinds, including the 12-volt car chargers. “I know it seems strange to ask for car chargers for villages without electricity,” said Davis. “But they are precious.” People in rural villages will travel miles on bicycle to charge a used car battery in a village with electricity. They then bring that car battery back to their village, where it’s used to charge the cellphones, he explained.
“We want any cellphones or chargers,” said Davis. “We’ll mix and match the phones and ensure that all the information stored on the phones is cleared before they’re shipped.”
Davis is currently negotiating for the support of a series of corporate supporters of his program. “If we can get more help, I know we can make a difference,” he said.
It’s a pleasure to be helping this organization,” said Funk. “It’s exciting to see the students (at Camosun) getting involved. We need to sustain the idealism – to get young people involved.”
How to donate
Books, cellphones and chargers can be dropped off at the Compassionate Warehouse, Bay 2-831 Devonshire Rd.
More information on Funk’s work with the Solon Foundation can be found at facebook.com/pages/Solon-Foundation-Zimbabwe, or go to africacalling.ca.
Funk can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.