Bringing Hope and Books to Zimbabwe

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When Relly Coleman, BGS ’06, began her studies at UConn, she had heard of a Zimbabwean tribe, the Lemba, which was said to be of Jewish origin. Although she doubted that claim, because of her background — she was raised in Israel and her husband was raised in Zimbabwe—she was intrigued. After three years of trying to make contact with the tribe, she met with a senior tribal elder in a Lemba village when she visited Zimbabwe in May 2005. The elder introduced her to the chief and the tribal elders.

Coleman’s interest led to an independent study on the Lemba of Zimbabwe as part of her BGS coursework. Her research project substantiated Lemba tradition that they are of Jewish ancestry, most likely originating from the ancient Jewish community of Yemen.

During her visit to the village, the senior tribal elder took her to the local secondary school, the village’s “pride and joy,” where Coleman immediately noticed the need for books. When Coleman returned to Connecticut, she put together a shipment of 50 books from different disciplines and sent them to the school.

“When we asked the village elders how we could help, we thought they would ask for money to support the people,” she said. “But they asked us for books for the children. Even though they were so poor and had so little, they were focusing on education to try to secure a better future for their children. So when we came back to the U.S., I got in touch with a local organization and together we put together a couple of boxes and sent them out and thought that would be it.”

But when she received a thank you letter from the headmaster attached to a long list of additional books that the school needed, she founded an initiative called “Books-for-Zim.” During the next seven years, with donations from local school systems, library book sales, textbook publishers, and private individuals, Coleman shipped 6000 pounds of books that included multiple copies of biology, physics, education, history, English, and math textbooks, as well as dictionaries and other reference books to eight schools in different villages in Zimbabwe.

When Coleman started Books-for-Zim, the secondary school in the village only went up to 10th grade. Within several years of receiving books from Coleman’s initiative, the school was given accreditation to extend it to 12th grade, and was accredited to have students take “A level” (University entry) exams.

“That opened up many opportunities and also meant that girls, as well as boys, could take the exams,” she said. “Before that, if a family had the resources to send a child to boarding school for the 11th and 12th grade, they would only spend their money on a boy. Now both boys and girls can stay in school to 12th grade, get a high school diploma, and take the A level exam.”

Another issue Coleman is trying to address is the loss of Lemba traditions, history, and culture with the death of the tribal elders. “This is an oral culture and with every elder that dies, traditions are lost,” Coleman said.

To keep that knowledge from dying out with the elders, Coleman introduced literary contests in the elementary and high schools to encourage young people to talk to their parents and elders and learn the tribe’s history, customs and traditions.

“We’re hoping the literary prize will encourage intergenerational dialogue so that the young ones will go to their parents and to the elders, ask about the tribe and their customs, and then write about it and give a voice to the tribe,” she said.

Coleman returns to Zimbabwe every 18 months and is still amazed by the impact both she and Books-for-Zim have had on one small African village.

“It’s really rewarding to know that something that we do here makes such a difference somewhere across the world,” Coleman says. “Here I’m just playing around in my garage with some books, and when you go to Zimbabwe, you realize what a difference it makes there. It makes you not only appreciate what we have here; it teaches you that if each one of us would do a little bit for somebody else, we can have a major impact on the world.

“I love Africa; I love their culture,” she adds. “The people of Zimbabwe are very good natured people; they’re creative; they’re very resourceful; they’re very intelligent. This is why if you just inject a tiny little bit of hope, they take it and build so much upon that tiny little bit of hope. I’ve learned a lot from them, and think I’m a better person from being involved with them.”