Empowering Learners – Our Short History

We’ll start by saying that it all began with music.

A few years ago a great friend to Luther College, Orv Johnson, said to Tim Peter, professor of music, “you should consider taking a choir to Namibia.”  Orv knew of the strength of our Lutheran Church in Namibia and the Namibians’ love of singing.

In January of 2006, Tim Peter and Gregory Peterson, associate professor of music and college organist, took an auditioned 24-member chamber choir to Namibia.  This course, entitled Choral Singing in Namibia and South Africa, was repeated in January 2010. 

It is here in January 2010 that our story begins.

Ethan Schultz was a sophomore in the “Africa Choir,” making the best of singing tenor when he’s really a baritone, and Ann Sponberg Peterson, director of development for Luther College, was traveling as the trailing spouse to Gregory. 

Now . . . if this history is meant to include all that we learned, experienced, and witnessed during this incredible journey, our message would take too many days to tell.  The gifts of that month are forever in our hearts and we love to tell the stories.  If you can spare the time, just ask us!

So let’s scroll ahead to Friday, January 15, 2010This was the day we toured Oshigambo Lutheran High School.  Founded in 1960 by Finnish Lutheran Missionaries, Oshigambo is located in the far North of Namibia near Oniipa.   

We spent a marvelous day with the learners there.  We shared a concert, two games of Ultimate, many stories, laughter, and a wonderful dinner.   We also had a tour of this residential math and science high school – one of the finest high schools in all of Namibia.  During this tour we were taken through their brand new library.  This library had recently been dedicated by Bishop Tomas Shivute, presiding bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Namibia (ELCIN), and was a lovely, new, air conditioned building with loads of space, rows and rows of shelves, but very few books. 

How could this be we wondered?   We quickly learned about learning and teaching in Africa!   We now mark this day as the beginning of what we have come to understand more fully as the Africa Book Famine.  Despite all worthy efforts and good intentions, there is simply a desperate shortage of printed books (on all levels) in all of Africa.

As a future teacher in the making, Ethan wondered what teaching in Africa could be like with such a shortage of resources.  Ann readily admits that when she saw the beautiful but almost empty

library she had been stricken.  She had, after all, begun her development career raising funds for library acquisitions and endowment. 

Scroll ahead to June 2010.  During that early summer Bishop Johannes Sindano of the ELCIN was visiting our ELCA companion synod of Northeast Iowa.   He came to see Luther College and all of us on campus that day who had a connection with Namibia enjoyed coffee and conversation together.  It was during this visit that Ann asked the Bishop about the new Library at Oshigambo and commented about the need for books.  Bishop Sindano asked “Can you help us?”  Ann said yes.  The Bishop took her business card and pledged to stay in touch. 

On October 27, 2010, a letter mailed in June, arrived (via snail mail) from the ELCIN Offices in Oniipa, Namibia.  The letter not only stated specifically (and very helpfully!) what types of books were needed, but also asked that we please include Nkurenkuru ELCIN High School in our efforts.

The letter was from Pastor Philippus Henok, secretary for education of the ELCIN.

Within two days a modest project to bring books to these two high schools was formed.  It began as a simple effort of collecting books and suitcases; thinking that future travelers to Namibia could carry and deliver them there.  At the same time, Ethan stopped by Ann’s office and indicated he was “all in” and wanted to help.  More than donating books or suitcases, Ethan wanted to serve in a significant way. 

Our first public appeal was Ethan speaking at his home congregation, St. John Lutheran Church in Waseca, Minnesota.  The result?  Boxes of books and a generous ingathering of funds!  We were officially doing this!

It was through a professional friend of Ann’s that we were soon put in touch with Books for Africa in St. Paul, an amazing not-for-profit organization whose primary mission and vision is to end the Africa Book Famine by shipping millions of books (and computers) to Africa.  They have been in this business since 1988.  Our initial conversation with BFA was incredibly positive.  They were very helpful and encouraging and it had been some time since they had sent books to Namibia, so they were keen on our mutual success. 

We were now in the business of raising significant dollars to ship a 40-foot sea container to Namibia for the benefit of these worthy schools.

Thanksgiving Weekend 2010 we chose the title Empowering Learners/Stocking the Shelves -- which used as a working title: “The Books for Namibia Project.” 

Our project went up on the Books for Africa web site, appeals were sent out, and gifts to our project started to arrive.  We had set an ambitious goal of raising $24,000 by May 1, 2010.  This goal, if achieved, would pay for a 40-foot sea container filled with an estimated 19,000 books, 40 computers, and three brand new sets of Encyclopedia Britannica.  It was planned that this total cost would also cover our container port fees and customs charges in the port of Walvis Bay, Namibia.

As this sea-container project took shape we also gained a new friend, Raymond Gryffenberg.   Through Pastor Henok, Raymond joined our project as our freight forwarder.  (He also served as coach and customs consultant!  We knew down the line, that if all went well, Raymond would meet our container at the port in Walvis Bay, Namibia, and would get it trucked to the North.  Raymond very helpfully estimated what these trucking costs would be and this increased our fund-raising goal just a bit.

It must be noted that a primary objective for our project was to cover ALL costs (planned and unplanned) ourselves.  If this project was truly to be a gift from us to them, then we needed our brothers and sisters in the ELCIN to not be adversely affected, in any way, by our efforts. 

We met the half way mark of our fund-raising goal at the end of January 2011 and the full amount for the container ($24,000) was met by mid-May 2011. 

Meanwhile in the Peterson garage and basement books kept arriving.  Sorting was ongoing.  By early May we had 36 boxes packed and ready to ship to the BFA warehouse in Atlanta, to be placed into our container bound for Namibia.  Approximately 1,000 books were donated by friends in Decorah and Waseca and made the journey.  All the remaining books came to our project (fulfilling the requests by the schools) through Books for Africa.  We simply cannot say enough about this great organization!

Our sea-container set sail out of the Port of Charleston on Wednesday, June 1, and arrived at the Port of Walvis Bay on Thursday, July 28, 2011.  On Monday morning, August 1, we received notice that the books had arrived at the ELCIN Church Offices in Oniipa the day before, and had been successfully unloaded by learners from Oshigambo High School. 

Ethan and Ann each tell our own emotional accounts of what it felt like on this day when we received the news.  We told everyone we could and friends and family helped us celebrate.  It seemed unreal, really, that it had all come together so wonderfully!

This phase of our history would not be complete without thanking our many friends and donors. 

More than 130 friends and organizations supported this phase (year one) of the project financially.  Dozens of folks gave books, and many members of the 2010 Africa Choir gave of their time in helping to sort, label, pack, and cheer us on!  We have been richly blessed! 

All through the year (2010-2011) of working toward the sea-container project, Ethan and Ann knew they wanted to get back to Namibia, and to bring others with them, so that more people could see and witness the work of our brothers and sisters in the ELCIN schools in Namibia.  We also established the Empowering Learners Endowment Fund at the ELCA Foundation with a goal to raise $25,000 in two years to fully fund this permanent endowment.

This return trip to Namibia became a reality in the summer of 2012.  Twelve of us traveled to Namibia.  Ethan and Ann were returning for their second trip and Gregory Peterson was traveling back for his third time.  The remaining nine travelers had never been to the continent of Africa.  We spent two weeks traveling in Namibia with a significant amount of our time being spent in the North.  A second year of fund-raising (during the academic year 2011-2012) allowed our group to bring with us: 25 more laptops, 50 TI83 graphing calculators, dozens of Braille books, dozens of soccer balls and educational supplies for some primary schools we knew well.  All of these gifts were delivered and were gratefully received. 

Most importantly, however, it was good to see the fruits of our labors from the sea-container project.  What a marvelous thing to witness.  The library at Oshigambo Lutheran High School was thriving!  Three rooms were filled with books -- one room each for reference/encyclopedias, English fiction, and English non-fiction.  Ms. Sera, the librarian, was doing a marvelous job of sorting some 9,000 books and she had the Dewey Decimal system up and running beautifully.  She also had established an expansive computer lab filled with the desktop Dell computers we sent.      

Now we look forward to someday seeing Nkurenkuru High School and meeting our good colleagues there.  

One particular school for which we have developed a sincere love is the School for Visually Impaired Children in Windhoek.  This school is neither in the North, nor is it affiliated with the Lutheran Church.  We came to know about this amazing school when the librarian there, Mrs. Anna Magdalena Strauss, found Ann on the internet and wrote to her.  She learned that we were supporting schools in Namibia and she asked for our help.  She indicated they had a severe shortage of reading materials in Braille at the school and that the children had read everything there was to read on every shelf and were soon going to get bored.  She asked, could we send them Braille books – of any kind?  We were not sure how to accomplish this special request.  But we’re pleased to say that every time we now know of someone traveling to Namibia, we send with them some Braille books for this school.     

At present we continue to raise funds for our endowment fund at the ELCA.  We also are raising funds to build a new kindergarten building honoring Pastor Philippus Henok. 

The current kindergarten building has been in place for about six years and great teaching is happening for the 25 learners who attend class there.  But the 12’ by 12’ corrugated metal building floods every year during the rainy season and there are not enough chairs or tables for the children.  However, despite the difficult condition of their kindergarten facility, each of these children learns English well enough to begin primary school in one year.  Ms. Helena is their exceptionally capable and gifted teacher. 

So in addition to all of our current initiatives for 2012 -2013 (totaling about $21,000), we hope to raise an additional $5,000 by October 20, 2012, so that this new kindergarten building may be built before December.  This new building will have a concrete floor, a roof, a door, windows, and enough seats for every child.  There is an outdoor restroom for the children, but no electricity is available.

Looking beyond this year --- Gregory Peterson is planning another January Term travel course for Luther singers in 2014.  We are very pleased that Empowering Learners will play an important role in introducing Luther students to intentional international philanthropy through this course.  We certainly hope more laptops, Braille books, and a few soccer balls will travel with us on this next journey to Namibia!      

All gifts in support of this effort, our endowment, and our future projects are deeply appreciated and gratefully received.   

In the words of Dag Hammarskjold:  For all that has been, thank you.  For all that is to come, yes.  

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