Students promote learning in Africa
By Tyler Norris Goode, STAFF WRITER
Nov. 14, 2004 10:44 p.m.
WCU undergrads collect books to send back to homeland
CULLOWHEE – Maybe it was Lunzaya Nlandu’s accent.
It could have been his physical presence – Nlandu is a giant of a man.
Perhaps it was a sixth sense.
No matter how or why, Paul Aloo just seemed to know that Nlandu was the man to help him lug a bunch of heavy books home.
Home isn’t the small apartment in Cullowhee where he’s based while working on his bachelor’s degree at Western Carolina University. No, for Aloo, home is thousands of miles away on the continent of Africa.
And, it just so happens, Nlandu was born on that continent as well. A basketball player at WCU, Nlandu recently joined Aloo for an interview to discuss their project Africed (a combination of the words "Africa" and "education.")
"At first Paul used to ask me if could help him carry some books," recalled Nlandu, a native of the Congo who moved to Canada with his family when he was 5. "Even though I was tired after practice, I would help him out. One day, he said he had a vision he wanted to share with me."
Little did Nlandu know that this idea would change his life’s direction and inspire him to spend the summer sitting beside Aloo in a tiny car as they traced the Southeastern coast of the United States.
Before he met Aloo, Nlandu’s mission in life was to help WCU earn a Southern Conference basketball title – a goal that still drives him as the season begins this week.
Regardless of how his team fares, though, Nlandu’s now knows what he wants to do with his life after basketball.
Life in Africa
Growing up in the impoverished African nation of Cameroon, Aloo has seen with his own eyes that education and books are more valuable than anything, with the possible exception of food and water.
While many aid organizations are focused on the latter two, Aloo wants to help his native people grow to a point where they no longer need humanitarian aid. And that has everything to do with hauling as many books, computers and other educational tools back home.
"When I got out of high school, I went to the university in Cameroon, but they had no books or materials there," recalled Aloo, who is 24. "I can’t even choose my major there. I want animal science. But because there aren’t enough books, they tell me I can’t choose that." "They said they would choose my major for me," Aloo added.
Feeling caged in for the first time in his life, he went to his family with a desperate plea.
"I begged them to let me leave," said Aloo, who has 11 brothers and sisters. "I told them, `My future is not here.’"
Learning the in world
The family scraped together all it could, and Aloo initially went to France to begin his studies. He then moved to a new continent and transferred to WCU.
While he has spent nearly every moment in these foreign lands consuming knowledge in the precious books he longed for, home has never been far from his mind. One day in France, he noticed some people throwing computers in the garbage.
Upon moving to the U.S., he discovered that relatively new books were being sent off to be recycled. Some of those books cost as much as $100, which might not even cover an American college student’s monthly cell phone bill.
But to someone raised in Third-World conditions, that price tag carries a totally different meaning.
"One-hundred-dollar," Aloo said, his voice deliberately accentuating each syllable. "In my country, that can feed a family for three, four, five month."
From the moment the idea for Africed popped into his mind, Aloo began collecting learning materials for his native people.
He currently has more than 3,000 books piled to the ceiling in his apartment.
Over the summer, he bought an old car for $600 and – along with Nlandu – traveled to colleges in South Carolina and Florida trying to secure as many learning materials as possible.
Along the way, they met International students who were willing to serve as book-collection coordinators at the College of Charleston and the University of Central Florida.
Altogether, Aloo and Nlandu estimate they’ve locked up 20,000 books as well as numerous computers and other learning materials.
At WCU, Aloo’s roommate – Lionel Abderenane of Madagascar – has joined three other students in assisting with the project. Suzanne Dahdah (originally from Pennsylvania), Eduardo Fonseca (a graduate student from Colombia) and Sandiah Thandran (graduate student from India) are also working with Nlandu and Aloo.
Aloo, Nlandu and Abderenane are all scheduled to graduate in May.
They’ve written several grants, and WCU administrators have provided them with office space that serves as their headquarters.
They initially hope to open a resource center in Cameroon, where the books they’ve collected so far will be housed.
"It’s amazing what these two young men have taken on all on their own," said Bethany Davidson, a visiting instructor in the entrepreneurship program at WCU. "Talk about self- starters. I don’t know if I’ve met two more motivated people than Paul and Lunzaya. They have really gone out and put a lot of effort into making their dream come true."
Professors aren’t the only ones who are impressed with Africed.
Nlandu has been selected as one of 12 semifinalists for the John Wooden Trophy, which is given each year by Athletes for a Better World.
The award is given to the college athlete who best displays character, teamwork, and citizenship (attributes that Athletes for a Better World believes will transform individuals, sport and society).
That’s not to say Nlandu is doing this for any kind of honor or glory.
"The fact that I moved to Canada when I was young and had the opportunity to have, well, everything, it makes me want to do anything, anything to give back," Nlandu said. "My people there (in the Congo) are willing to do anything to learn, but they don’t have the funds. If I could provide these books and a way for them to learn, for me it would be unbelievable."
Bringing it home
Aloo’s passion for Africed was rekindled when he met a man who had been educated at the public university in Cameroon.
"He had gotten his degree in engineering," Aloo said. "He was trying to fix my cousin’s cell phone because the light, it would not work. The guy got out his screwdriver and opened it up, but he could not find a solution to the problem. I get the cell phone, press `Menu’ and `light,’ and the light comes on. For the people there, Microsoft Windows is as difficult as C++ (computer programming language) is for us."
Ultimately, Aloo and Nlandu visualize a network of colleges and resource centers throughout central Africa similar to the system of hospitals that AfriCare has set up. "We want to raise enough money where we can have American kids go over there to give training for a week or two, and to send faculty over there to teach for a month or two at a time," Nlandu said. "And we want to make African students aware that they can come here to study.
"One big goal is that if war breaks out in one country, it will not stop education. If there is war in Kenya, students could transfer to the nearest country and keep studying."
Lofty goals, to be sure.
But Nlandu is not a small man. And he and Aloo do not dream small dreams.
"My family has sacrificed for me to be able to come here, so I would do anything to give back to them and to the people in my country," Aloo said. "Everything they need is right here. We just have to put our minds to it, and we can do this for them."
Contact Goode at 231-3153 or [email protected].