STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Andrew Sicree spent only a year volunteering at Strathmore College, a Catholic institution of higher learning in Nairobi, Kenya. But he’s part of the reason Strathmore is now a university.
In 1986-87, Sicree volunteered to teach computer data processing at what was then Strathmore College, a Catholic school affiliated with Opus Dei.
While in Kenya, he saw how many schools and towns were without a library. Few of the rural Kenyans he met owned their own books, and illiteracy was rampant. Even at the University of Nairobi Library, which Sicree often visited, the books were too old and too few.
When Sicree was preparing to leave Kenya, he asked the Strathmore administration for authorization to collect books in the United States for the college’s library. Over the next several years, Sicree gathered and sent thousands of books, usually in shipments of 100 or less, to Strathmore.
An adjunct professor and former director of Penn State University’s Earth and Mineral Sciences Museum, Sicree has not been back to Kenya since his volunteer days. But in 2005, he attended a Strathmore alumni reception in Washington, D.C., where he met Thomas Pyle, founding executive director of the Strathmore University Foundation.
Pyle told him that Strathmore wanted to increase its library collection by 80,000 volumes in order to be granted a full university charter by the Kenyan Commission on Higher Education. The foundation offered to pay the shipping fees if Sicree could find a way to collect and send books in larger numbers.
The African Book Project was born.
“Second only to the poverty of food in most of Africa is the poverty of books,” said Pyle. “They are hard to come by. … It is difficult for a society to develop a reading culture without sufficient books to read.”
Sicree acquired the necessary storage space and began collecting thousands of books to be sorted and shipped to Strathmore. His first major shipment included 17,000 books, packed in a 20-foot-long shipping container, which were then shelved in Strathmore’s new library building. Since then, he has sent 33,000 additional books to the university, including 3,000 Catholic Bibles, and is currently working on another shipment for next spring.
According to Bernadette Njeri Thiuri, lecturer at Strathmore’s School of Tourism and Hospitality, “Books are exceedingly expensive in Kenya, and consequently universities tend to purchase the minimum required per subject in order to qualify for higher education certification. Many universities in Kenya would love to have someone like Andrew Sicree as a friend to collect books for their universities.”
Thiuri and her husband, Philip, a Catholic deacon and professor at William Paterson University, had their own goal: to establish rural reading centers in Kenya. They collected thousands of books and stored them in their New Jersey home; they were looking for a way to ship them to Kenya, when they were told of extra space in one of Sicree’s shipping containers bound for Strathmore. Their books were shipped to Nairobi along with Sicree’s, and Strathmore students helped distribute the books to rural reading centers in Kenya.
Not every book Sicree finds is suitable for a university library, so he has contributed many volumes to Bernadette Thiuri’s rural reading program. In the past, he sent books to a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania, a Catholic seminary in Nigeria and the Medical Mission Sisters in Ethiopia. He is currently preparing a shipment of children’s books and encyclopedias for an AIDS orphanage in Nyumbani, Kenya. A Catholic diocese in Liberia in desperate need of books has also requested his help, so he is setting books aside for that purpose, but he has not yet found a way to pay the shipping costs.
“At the moment, this book project consists primarily of me, my wife and kids, and my friends helping out,” Sicree explained. “I don’t have a website. Right now, I just rent storage space and keep the packed books in a trailer.”
Book donations have been made to Sicree’s African Book Project by his parish, the local St. Vincent de Paul Society, various Knights of Columbus chapters and students and teachers at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg, Md. However, the majority of the books Sicree sends are found at thrift shops and Goodwill stores.
Sicree pointed out that a number of other programs exist to collect and ship books to Africa. “But not too many people are doing what I’m doing, going through and hand-selecting each book, asking, ‘Is this a good book to send? Is it useful? Is it truthful?’”
Sicree often acquires hundreds or even thousands of books at a time, and he looks at each and every one before deciding whether or not to pass it on. He will not send outdated books or those containing explicit sexual references or mentions of the occult. He also weeds out books that attack or undermine Christianity.
“A number of other book projects actually reject books on the basis of religion,” he reported. “Most won’t send religious books at all. But religion is important to many people in Africa; it’s something they want to talk and learn about. When I can, I send books of theology and philosophy, biographies of the saints, Catechisms — books that teach and uphold the Catholic faith.”
Sicree’s program depends on reliable partners in Africa, such as those he has at Strathmore. “I’ve had lots of requests for books,” he said, “and I’d like to expand the African Book Project, form contacts in other countries, help build some libraries in Kenya. But I’d need some new sources of funding to do it.” For now, his primary focus remains the Strathmore University Library collection, which he has increased by so many thousands.
“Anyone could start a similar book collection project. I would gladly show them how,” said Sicree. He has a list of criteria for his African Book Project available by request.
“The book situation is so bleak in Africa,” Sicree said. “As a Catholic, a teacher and a lover of books, this was something I wanted to do to help people who are trying to learn.”
Nicole Ficere Callahan is based in Durham, North Carolina.
INFORMATIONAfrican Book ProjectP.O. Box 10664, State College, PA 16805, firstname.lastname@example.org Strathmore University Foundation, StrathmoreFoundation.org