From Minnesota to Mauritania

A wall of unopened boxes of books met Delia Dunlap in 2009 when she arrived at her teaching job at Ecole Normale Superieure, the national teacher training college in Nouakchott, the capital city of Mauritania in West Africa. The books had been sitting there, dusty and dormant for over a year. Until …

“I opened the first box, opened a book about Egypt and saw ‘Anwatin Jr. High,’ and I realized that I recognized that book from a project I did in middle school,” writes Dunlap via email from West Africa. “Then I opened the rest of them and they were from Anwatin, Barton, South, Southwest, Edison. It was crazy.”

It was also coincidence. The shipment had come from Books For Africa, the St. Paul-based nonprofit that has been spearheading area book drives for Africa since 1988 and the books are now the foundation of the Dunlap-built ENS English Language Lab, whose Facebook page quotes Maria Montessori: “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, ‘The children are now working as if I did not exist.’”

“I came to Mauritania and met students finishing their fourth year of studies for a degree in the Language Arts and they had never read a single book,” says Dunlap. “Never. Not one. And this seemed so tragic.

“I tell them that books are a way to access another world. Mauritania is a very isolated place in many ways, so books can open many doors. This is especially important for young teachers, so I see books as truly transformative.”

A 1995 graduate of Southwest High School who says that, as a sixth grader at Anwatin, she “lived” in the Linden Hills Library after school, Dunlap possesses a natural enthusiasm and curiosity about life and her infectious love of learning and reading has obviously lit a fire in the hearts and minds of her students.

“My school kept telling me that they were going to build a new English library, but of course they never did anything to make that happen,” she says. “A Peace Corps volunteer organized their arrival in the country and the U.S. Embassy got the books out of the port and into the hands of Mauritanians, but all that was done before I ever came. When I arrived the books were in boxes, never opened, until I and the students opened them and got them on bookshelves.

“The library really took two years to get going but once we had the shelves and everything it only took a week to get all the books packed up, moved, unpacked and organized.”

The 35-year-old Dunlap grew up in a house of readers, writers and musicians. The daughter of Chrissie and Bob “Slim” Dunlap (the beloved Minneapolis guitarist/songwriter who is currently recovering from a stroke at the Courage Center in Golden Valley), Delia received her BA in political science from the University of Minnesota, graduated from the masters in teaching program at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. and was a Peace Corps. volunteer in Benin. 

“I grew up in a house where there were always stacks of books,” she says. “Books became tables. Books became shelves for other books. So then I visit villages and places where there are no books and I realize how different my upbringing has been — I respect oral cultures and the gift of story-telling whether written or not, but the personal connection I have found from reading alone in a quiet place has been so important for me.

“I love reading. I have spent so many years in isolated villages in Africa where it is difficult to find friends who speak English, so books have become my friends. For me, books are very personal. Characters are friends. I think I would have gone crazy if I didn’t have the intellectual stimulation that books provided.”

This year Dunlap had her students read Sherman Alexie’s young adult memoir “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” which was the first full-length book many of them had ever read. 

“They all loved it,” she reports. “Every single one of them loved it. For most of them it was the first book that made them laugh and have a personal connection with. Last week I showed the movie ‘Louder Than A Bomb,’ about kids in Chicago competing in a national poetry slam competition, and at the end of the movie three of my students checked out books about poetry.” 

At this point, the library boasts 4,000 books, with students starting to pick favorites — everything from short story collections from around the world (especially the Arab world), to “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck, to books on creativity and teaching. “It is really a splendid Lab,” writes one student on the ENS Facebook page; “It is the candle that we’ve been waiting 4 a long time of darkness.”

“My library represents the best of the best,” says Dunlap, whose positive energy suggests she could start a reading revolution just about anywhere. “Every single book is important and was hand-selected by me and my students. My library is the only library in Mauritania specifically geared for English teachers, and it is actually the best library about teaching I have ever seen. We have an amazing collection of books. 

“I am so proud of my library. It is more than a room filled with books. It is a meeting place for book lovers.”

Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet.