Wendy Lee & Books For Cameroon: How To Change The World For $11,500 (An Exclusive Interview With A U.S. Peace Corps Volunteer)

Wendy was studying for her postgraduate entrance examination when her friends Billy and Loǐc invited her to a dinner-party. Welcoming the break from Pythagorean theorems, she soon found herself in the midst of Bamilệkệ villagers and foreign missionaries speaking in English, Fijian, Korean, French, Spanish and German.

She does homework and blogs on Blogger and Facebook just like most of us, but she’s not your typical 23 year old Asian-American girl. Wendy Lee is a multilingual United States Peace Corps volunteer and literacy advocate, the driving force behind Books For Cameroon – the visionary project of building and stocking 30 fully-booked libraries in this West African nation.

The Republic of Cameroon, with an area of 475,442 square kilometers, is a microcosm of the African landscape, a convergence of diverse climate, vegetation and geography. The 2009 population estimate is 19,522,000 – but only 67.9% is literate.

The importance of being able to read and write is self-evident. There is also a scientifically-proven correlation between illiteracy on one hand, and poverty and prejudice against women on the other, as revealed in the latest (2008) “Global Monitoring Report On Education For All” from the UNESCO.

Enter Books For Cameroon. The idea is to establish 30 – having grown from the original 25 – bilingual (English and French) libraries in the East, West, and Southwest regions. Phase 1, until the end the end of September, is the funding and delivery of English books, with the help of the U.S. NGO Books For Africa. Phase 2 begins on October for French books, in coordination with French NGOs Billion and I’AESCO. The training on library management will start on January 2010.

For a Peace Corps volunteer, each day is an adventure. “The constant surprises are both the beauty of life as a volunteer, yet also the source of many frustrations,” she writes in her blog. Some unhappy moments were borne of cultural differences, but the most ridiculous moments come from the top: government officials and services always late and government offices always closing early.

A recent visit to Yaoundệ village illustrates the state of the nation. Wendy and her friends were about to cross the street when angery policemen waved them back. The village transformed into a virtual war zone as military tanks and soldiers with machine guns brought everything into a standstill. Lo and behold, the Mighty One descended: President Paul biya arrived in a limousine with a parade of siren-screaming SUVs and motorcycle escorts – to watch a football game at the Omnisport stadium.

Freedom House ranks Cameroon as “not free” in civil liberties and political rights. Biya has been in power since 1982 and just recently arrived from a vacation in France on a $40,000-a-night budget. Meanwhile, the country’s budget for education is a microscopic 3.3% of government expenditures – and Wendy and her team and wracking their brains out trying to find $11,500 for 30 libraries.

Wendy has mobilized the power of the Internet, creating global awareness through Facebook and other social-networking sites. I met her when she sent me a note via BloggersUnite.org, where we both took part in the International day For Literacy campaign last Sept. 8.

With 3 other Peace Corps volunteers and the Cameron-based NGO Research Institute For Development, Wendy and her team has charted progress, but it is still not enough. Her September 29 blog post is a galvanizing call to the worldwide network of friends and supporters of the project:

“My goal to fund Phase 1 of Books For Cameroon by the end of September is unlikely to happen, unless either an amazing, generous philanthropist decides to donate $3.5K in the next 24 hours, OR, if by some bizarre miracle, 700 people decide to donate their 5$ [Facebook] latte/beer in the next 24 hours.”

Wendy graciously took time for our e-mail interview, where she talks about Books For Cameroon, her plans after Peace Corps, and why there’s no such thing as a “typical” day for her. Excerpts:

Q. In the movie Stanley & Iris, Robert De Niro plays an illiterate man who asks Jane Fonda to teach him to read. In Books for Cameroon, do you have a program for adults?

A. While most of the libraries will be in schools, we are supplying books to 5 municipal and resource libraries where adults will have access. Since the project began with my desire to fill a 4-room school house with books, most of the emphasis lies on youth literacy and access to information.

Q. Illiteracy can be perceived as a social stigma. Doubtless there are Cameroonians who want to learn but are too embarrassed or intimidated. Are these folks part of your program?

A. From my experiences with teaching here, a great majority of people who can read do not read at ease, and a lot of the time do not comprehend what they read. They would probably never seek help, but I hope through our library management training, teachers will begin incorporate library usage as a part of their curriculums and reach those too afraid or too embarrassed to seek help.

Q. In your mission of spreading literacy, providing easy access to reading materials is already half the battle. What other things do you have in mind to jumpstart the students’ life-long relationship with the printed word?

A. Besides putting books on shelves, we hope to implement training for educators within Cameroonian schools and teach methods that allow students to actually have access to the books in these libraries. This could include reading time during class and implementing a system of lending books from these libraries. Hopefully the increase in frequency of reading will allow students to discover the entertainment value that lies within the printed words. Personally, I see this as a global problem in today's digital age where fewer people read as a form of entertainment.

Q. The 2009 population estimate for Cameroon is a staggering 19, 522, 000 – of which only 67.9% are literate. It seems too much to expect a 100% literacy rate within a generation, so how do you see it?

A. Of the 67.9% who are literate, I suspect a good number of them do not read on a regular basis. My project's goal isn't to achieve 100% literacy, but instead allowing those who can read to read more, and those who can't to begin. I think reaching the youth can create more long-lasting impact in spreading literacy, and that is why the majorities of our libraries are in schools.

Q. In the history of colonialisms, the status quo consolidates its power by keeping the masses in a state of ignorance. Freedom House has ranked Cameroon as “not free” in terms of civil liberties and political rights. Do you think President Biya will interfere with your program if the people start being enlightened?

A. [I will have to omit this question as I can't publicly answer politically sensitive questions as a Peace Corps volunteer.]

Q. How do teachers teach the love of reading without making it seem like homework?

A. When I was in elementary school in Taiwan, my favorite time in school was when my teacher took the class to the library for an hour or two for reading time. We were able to read any books that we wanted in the library. To me, that felt like a break since we didn't need to listen to a lecture. I think reading time is extremely important, especially in the primary school level.

Q. What’s a typical day for you?

A. As a Peace Corps volunteer, there really isn't a typical day. We have the liberty to shape the day as we wish. If I wake up tomorrow and feel like going on a 3-hour hike or hang out with my villagers, I could. If I decided to stay in and get work done, I could be interrupted by the neighborhood kids who want to play or neighbors who invite me over for lunch. The constant surprises is the beauty of being a Peace Corps volunteer.

Q. What’s the next project after Books for Cameroon?

A. After Books For Cameroon, my service will come to and end. However, since my primary assignment is a business developer, I have been teaching business classes to villagers, advising a few different small enterprises to help them get off the ground. These business-related projects are on-going and I work on them while implementing Books For Cameroon

Q. How do you envision Books for Cameroon after your tour of duty?

A. We hope through library management training, the 30 libraries will become self-sustainable. However, we are working with RIDEV (Research Institute for Development), a Cameroonian NGO who will help us follow-up on the libraries after our departure. I also hope that volunteers after us will have the initiative to continue Books For Cameroon in other parts of the country. The need is dire and Books For Cameroon can absolutely be an on-going project.

Q. What’s life after the Peace Corps?

A. Besides bugging everyone on the cyber-sphere about my project, I am also filling my brain with esoteric GRE vocabularies to prepare for graduate school admission. I plan to pursue a master's program in international relations, with emphasis on international finance and economics.

Q. Final question, Wendy. Millions of people around the world believe in you and your mission, and they are supporting you in their own ways. What is your message to them?

A. I want to encourage everyone to turn off their iPhones, laptops, and televisions every now and again and enjoy a good book. We can get bogged down in today's digital world and forget the simplicity that lies within the printed words. Also, take the time to read because we are able to; this is not a skill that we should take for granted. Utilize it!

Watch related video on Cameroon volunteers courtesy of ABroaderView.org. Photo of Wendy Lee and Cameroon kids courtesy of RoundII:Cameroon. Visit Books For Cameroon, her blog Round II:Cameroon and Facebook wall. See also “Can We End Poverty In Our Generation?”


Shiloe Bear said…
Great interview on a totally interesting project Jonathan. Keep it up!
JonathanAquino said…
Thank you, Shiloe Bear! I really your vote of confidence.
JonathanAquino said…
Sorry for the typo. What I meant to say was -- Thank you for your vote of confidence. I really appreciate it a lot.