Oh, the Places You'll Go!
14 May 2018 at 8:29 am
Elise Margow is the co-founder of Australian Books for Children of Africa (ABCA), a charity which has just shipped off its 250,000th book to an African school. She is this week’s Changemaker.
Margow is a lawyer by trade, who founded ABCA in 2003 with her husband Ben, after they witnessed first-hand the lack of educational resources in many African schools.
ABCA distributes fiction and non-fiction books sourced in Australia to more than 125 schools in South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, Congo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
The charity has just shipped off its 250,000th book – Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr Seuss – and has plans to expand to e-books in the future.
Margow is also involved in the not-for-profit sector through her work as chair of St Martins Youth Arts Centre, and was named by The Age’s Melbourne Magazine as one of the top 100 most passionate, powerful and provocative personalities of 2012.
In this week’s Changemaker, Margow explains how ABCA was formed by accident, discusses why books in Africa are like “gold”, and outlines the significance of where the charity’s 250,000th book is headed.
Were you involved in the not-for-profit sector before founding ABCA?
I’m a lawyer and I would do pro bono work and work with legal aid. So I guess you would say that’s a kind of not-for-profit work. But I certainly wasn’t involved in anything like this.
Can you take me through the journey of how ABCA was founded?
It actually happened by mistake. There was no intention to start a charity. I am South African and when I was visiting family in South Africa, we were traveling around KwaZulu-Natal to some of the game parks there and we saw a rural school near a game park built using corrugated iron and lots of children milling around — which isn’t unusual in South Africa — but the juxtaposition between all these games parks around and this kind of impoverished school just hit a nerve with us.
So we contacted the headmistress Lindelihle Gumede, and we asked how we could help. Honestly we thought she would want some money, but instead she said “I need resources, I need books, I need atlases, I need something to teach these children with because I don’t have anything”.
We came back to Australia, and I won’t go through the whole story of what we did, but we were just going to post new books. Then we phoned a school library and found out that in Australia, schools pulp books from libraries when they restock because there isn’t a need for second-hand school books.
And so far from sending a box of books, we had 20 boxes of books to send. And we thought we had done it, and that was it, but somehow [Lindelihle] must have spoken to someone from the Union of Jewish Women in Port Elizabeth, who have a program where they go round to rural schools and they refurbish the schools with new desks and things like that.
And then we got a call from them saying “we believe you run this charity sending books to Africa and when we’re refurbishing schools, it would be great if we could create a library and you could give us the books”. And at the same time we were getting calls from librarians…. saying “oh we believe you run a charity sending books to Africa, and we’ve got these books that we have to pulp”.
And suddenly we [realised] we had to do something. There’s a need on the one hand where books are gold, and there’s also these perfectly good books in Australia. So very slowly we started to build up ABCA to the extent where we hit that 250,000th book, reaching multiple countries in Africa, and we’ve built up how we work, understand the resources etc. It’s been a slow journey getting everything into place.
And how much do these children value the books you send them?
For them it’s gold. When we go to schools, these kids live mostly in rural areas, and there’s not much electricity. They walk for hours to get to school and are lucky if they’ve got running water. These books take them to another world.
For example, we worked with a group in Nigeria called the Cardinia Hope Foundation. We worked with a guy in Melbourne to get books to Nigeria and he took our books to a displaced persons camp. I said to him “Take the books, but these kids are hungry why don’t you just take them food instead?”
But these kids didn’t want the food, they wanted the books and I have photographs of them just pouring over these books and lapping it up. I sometimes think it’s a good thing to take people back to the wonder of reading and these kids have it in spades.
How significant is the milestone of 250,000 books and did you envision hitting such heights when you started ABCA?
Definitely not, we just thought we’d ship some books off to Durban and maybe help out one school. It’s a huge milestone also for our volunteers, because we have wonderful volunteers in Melbourne and Sydney and in Africa. Everybody who does work for us is unpaid. When we had our 250,000th book packed every volunteer came. All those years we’ve just been packing and packing and to get 250,000 books to Africa is huge.
And from the African volunteers’ point of view, they think it’s amazing. The 250,000th book is actually going to Makhassa School, the first school we helped. Lindelihle will be quite emotional when she gets that book.
And so what are the goals for the organisation going forward?
Basically we’ve had a good long think, and we will continue sending books obviously because there’s a need. But we also are going to start looking at e-books as well. We just have to raise the funds for that.
We’ve also started working with a group in the Congo. The manager of ABCA Sydney is a teacher, and she’s actually been helping economic empowerment in the Congo and training them how to teach adult literacy. So we do that by phone or she does it via Facebook and we’ve actually had a few certificates going out where these adults have passed the literacy standard.
But it’s a very small thing and obviously we’d like to ramp it up and so we’re busy planning how we do it and how we get the funds. Because at the moment we can do things on a very small, local basis working individually, but we’re a very small organisation and we rely on volunteer work.
So part of it is raising the funds to have one or two teachers who are available and are paid for their work so that they can dedicate themselves to it. And so we will be doing that and working on an e-book solution in the next three to five years.
How do you juggle your work with ABCA and your career as a lawyer?
It’s crazy. I’ve obviously got to focus on my clients, but I’m often working at night responding to things and I’ve got some really good volunteers who I can say: “Look this has to be done. I’ve got to deal with a client issue, can you go and stand in for me”. So the volunteers have been amazing in taking things on when I can’t. My husband is also a co-founder of ABCA and he understands finances better than I do. So he does a lot of work, I’m not on my own.
And I certainly couldn’t be doing this on my own. So I’m just grateful there are phenomenal people out there who have bought into the message and give up their time without recognition. These guys just come quietly, they do this stuff, and they’re not looking for recognition because most of them are readers and believe in the love of reading and literacy.
And it’s from a Dr Seuss book that “the more you read, the more you know, the more you know, the more places you go”. We believe that every child has the potential to be great, but being born into circumstances where they just don’t have the tools, we hope we can give them some tools. And it’s not just me who believes it, it’s the ABCA family who do, and they’ve been working with us for years. So we’re very lucky.
What do you like to do in your spare time when you find time for yourself?
Well I sing and play the piano. And I go to theatre and I like watching cricket. I also love to get together with a lot of friends and chat, and I also read. I read a fortune. And sometimes I just like to be a couch potato and binge on TV.
What book are you reading at the moment?
At the moment I’m reading a Tracy Chevalier book, [but] I can’t remember the name. Tracy Chevalier’s a brilliant author who writes kind of fiction but based on factual history. And this one is about the Redwood trees in San Francisco and the apple farmers many, many years ago. She’s an amazing author. I’m obsessed with her at the moment.