Tall bookworms from Little Libraries grow

Tomm Leighton
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Sometimes in my job you have one of those mornings where you feel very fortunate to be in the position you are in life. This morning was one of them. I’m in Cape Town, ostensibly for the PMA Fresh Connections event near the city’s magnificent Waterfront.

Yesterday evening my colleague Linda Bloomfield and I shared a lovely few hours with friends from the industry and this morning we met Camille Quine, who founded and runs not-for-profit organisation Little Libraries, an initiative that was set up to provide books and stationery to children in underprivileged areas of the Townships that surround Cape Town.

I’ve been to South Africa on several occasions now and love the country. I’ve been here on holiday too, when friends went on one of the popular Township tours, but while I’d never thought of the phrase before, when Camille explained the controversy that surrounds such tours as them being seen as ‘poverty porn’ it rang true as the very reason I’d not participated myself in the past.

You drive past long stretches of Townships in many parts of the country and I’ve often wondered, like anyone would, what lies beyond the fence and the first few houses you see from the highway. But while I’m not judging anyone reading this who has gone on these tours as I know they can contribute financially to the communities involved – my curiosity didn’t extend to me wanting to arrive from my nice hotel – with a bunch of tourists on a bus – and take photos of the people who live in such desperately deprived surroundings.  

When Kathy Hammond wrote this article a couple of weeks ago though, Nic Jooste of Cool Fresh International knew we were going to be in Cape Town and asked if we wanted to go with Camille and see some of the beneficiaries of the literacy and educational project that Cool Fresh and its supply base have helped Little Libraries to provide with books, bookcases, cupboards, painting kits, blankets and much more.

Of course we did. We went to four pre-school crèches in Khayelitsha Site, which runs along the highway from around 25 kilometres to 45km outside of the city. There were between 25 and 50 children in each crèche, all there for 10 hours or more five days a week. The largest area we went in was the size of a container, split into three rooms.

The parents who can afford it pay five South African Rands a day for each child to attend, which at today’s exchange rate is 25 British pence. Their little ones are fed twice for that and typically there are four people caring and teaching them who need to be paid out of that too.  

There is no government funding for these types of facilities, yet as more and more women from the Townships move away from their traditional familial support structure and go into the cities to work, they are an absolute necessity. But there is no spare money to buy books, paper or any of the things that many children in South Africa (and of course elsewhere in the world) would take for granted. Camille started Little Libraries in 2013 and this Friday, she will provide a library to the 102nd facility. We visited numbers 16, 41, 90 and 95 and the children and ladies at all four greeted Camille with genuine excitement and warmth. The network has been built largely by word-of-mouth referral, which she says is a far more effective way of engaging a Township community than simply pitching up with what on the surface appears like charity from an unknown.

“There’s a sense of humanity and togetherness in a Township that you don’t find in the city,” says Camille. “The closeness and acceptance of the ladies who work so hard to look after these children is what keeps us going back on the freezing mornings.” The joyous look on the children’s faces helps too, of course.

The crèches are all decorated beautifully and very well looked after, but they are as tiny as the children who hug us and shake our hands because we are there with their friend Camille. It’s a voluntary job, but she says she gets “paid in other ways” and it’s impossible to disagree. There were no books in these crèches before. Watch this video of Phomelo reading a book to her children – don’t stop until you’ve heard her beautiful voice – and you can see the difference that having books can make.

Two years into the project, the books are not a problem – in fact Camille says that the best way to help is to donate financially. She doesn’t provide the children with second-hand books as the aim is to give them something that the crèche will take pride in. The handcrafted bookcases and cupboards are bought from a charity that teaches homeless people woodwork, and a British lady got in touch to introduce Camille to Knit-a-Square, an international charity that has now begun donating blankets to the cause – both to sit on and play and to keep the children warm in the colder months. Paper, a disposable resource in much of the world, is not available, so painting as a group can’t take place effectively until that too is bought and donated. And the latest drive is to find funding for the chairs and tables at which the kids can do their painting and drawing.

“The daughter of the founder of Knit-a-Square lives in Cape Town, so getting that in place was a bit of a fluke,” Camille says. “I thought, I’m not about blankets, I do books, then I thought I’m not about toys, but people know what we’re doing and they want to donate things so my garage and spare room are now full of things that go beyond the educational material I began aiming to provide. But they are all so useful and appreciated, of course I’m happy to be able to provide them.”

It could have been any industry that donated these things, of course, but I’ve been to many places in the world and Cool Fresh’s Stars In Their Eyes programme is one of many things that the fresh produce sector does to make the world a better place. It’s all too easy to get caught up in what we do every day, but sometimes it’s just wonderful to see the impact of this type of work on the people who most need it.

If you’d like to help out Little Libraries, contact Camille Quine at [email protected] or Nic Jooste at [email protected]

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