WATERTOWN — A few months ago, while Americans were celebrating the Fourth of July, protestors were vandalizing a library in the northern region of Malawi in Africa.
Demonstrators protesting the president and anyone connected to his political party targeted the library because the building’s owner, Grace Chiumia, is affiliated with the president.
The protesters broke into the building and took boxes of books into the driveway, set them on fire and scattered the pages around.
A group out of Watertown known as the Malawi Early Literacy Team (MELT), an ecumenical mission project of Watertown’s First Presbyterian Church, had been renting the space for the past two years in an effort to provide books and literacy kits to those in the area.
MELT provides the teachers and students of northern Malawi with four key services: early literacy publications, teacher training, teachers’ manuals and a mobile library that transports the materials to classrooms.
This summer, following the attack, the library went from 8,000 to about 2,000 books, with some recovered from the Malawian police and 1,000 more published with donor support and brought over by MELT.
Losses included more than 5,000 early readers, book bins, shelving, racks, tables and more. What remained were six new library shelves, 1,200 books that were loaned out to schools at the time, 400 books en route with a MELT team member, ABC fluency kits, the MELT1 Land Cruiser and the knowledge that giving up in the face of the destruction was not an option.
In a notice of the summer destruction, posted to MELT’s website, team leader Heather F. White wrote, “MELT will not allow the acts of a few to stop our good work for 20 schools, over 40 teachers, and a circulation of 40,000 books annually.”
According to Mrs. White, the north country has a long and rich history of serving the people in Malawi through various programs.
“Each time we made a visit I’d find the time to do some educational work,” she said. “It quickly became evident to me that the way to help the youths move up into a stable economy was through education.”
In 2016, Mrs. White and others made three educational trips, and MELT formed from the need witnessed by the members, north country professionals with the same goals, passion and understanding that literacy is the answer.
On the morning of July 4, Mrs. White received a text from the MELT director of operations in Malawi at 8:30 a.m. telling her the library was on fire and that he did not know what would happen next. Both were devastated.
“I was at home and I literally just sat down and cried because this has been a passion of mine, was in a state of shock for three days, and then people started to write and call and send donations,” she said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to pick ourselves up. We’ve got work to do.’”
Mrs. White and her son booked a flight to Malawi. Their main goal was to set up a temporary place from which to operate, but she said they had such support and assistance from the Malawi government they found land to buy and wired money to purchase it, as well as having drawings approved from the Commissioner of Lands to build MELT’s own library, free from politically charged drama.
The $100,000 project will allow for the group’s own library and office, a small area for teachers to meet and a location that will feed the MELT1 bookmobile service to 20 schools.
“We went from complete devastation and feeling like all is lost to a complete turnaround knowing that we can get the job done and come back bigger and better,” Mrs. White said.
Though the reprinting of books hasn’t been completed yet, with about 2,500 more to go, MELT is working on new projects and hopeful for the future. The north country has rallied to help with the cause, with the children of Asbury United Methodist Church raising $1,100. That money will sponsor four ABC kits and one simple word kit.
“The Malawian people are so thankful and appreciative,” Mrs. White said. “One teacher said to me, ‘Please tell the people who have been so good to us in America not to give up on us. This is not a representation of how we are,’ after the attack on the library.”
According to Mrs. White, sponsors of the MELT library building project beginning at the $1,000 level will be honored with name plaques on the wall of the library to acknowledge their generosity.
“We really believe in serving God’s children one book at a time,” Mrs. White said. “We believe we’re global citizens and are reaching our hands around the globe to the children of Malawi, making the world stronger as a whole.”
Those interested in becoming sponsors of MELT can go to malawiearlyliteracy.org.