For the Love of Books
A Houston lawyer has a mission to enable literacy in the developing world
Interview by Harvey Brown
Mark Cotham presents books for a library in Uganda.
In 2008, Houston lawyer Mark Cotham was visiting the West Nile region of Uganda. He fell in love with the people but was disturbed by the abject poverty of the region, especially its effect on children. Cotham talked with leaders of Ugandan villages about their needs, and the consistent request was for help educating their children. He found that developing nations like Uganda typically suffer from a high illiteracy rate, linked to a profound shortage—and often total absence—of books. Cotham was struck by the irony that developing nations have a book famine, while in the United States individuals and institutions are getting rid of books.
Cotham formed a nonprofit corporation, Good Steward Global Initiative, now known as Books for Development, to provide books and establish libraries in developing nations. It collects donated books from libraries, bookstores, churches, and individuals, supplemented by bulk purchases of deeply discounted books. Volunteers sort the books, pack them for shipping, and send them to English-speaking developing countries. Books for Development works in partner countries to identify schools, prisons, community centers, and town buildings with space to use for libraries. It contracts with local metal workers to build bookshelves. Groups of volunteers make periodic trips to partner countries where they transform previously empty rooms into libraries by unpacking, organizing, and shelving the books; delivering basic supplies; decorating the walls; and training local librarians.
Attorneys Mark Cotham, Harvey Brown, Kevin Dubose, and John Wallace with
other volunteers at the opening of a new Uganda library.
I visited Uganda with this group in 2017 to set up libraries and was moved by the experience and impressed by this transformative organization. I recently interviewed founder Mark Cotham to learn more.
Mark, how many times have you been to Africa for Books for
I will make my 22nd trip to Uganda this year. I also have been to Central America, Zambia, and soon hope to go to Botswana.
How many libraries have you and other volunteers established
in the West Nile region of Uganda alone?
We have established over 200 school libraries, 50 community libraries, and 10 prison libraries. We have shipped over half a million books overseas.
Why did you originally target the West Nile region of Uganda?
The need is especially great there—there are around 4 million people, and when we started, virtually no public access to books other than a limited supply of textbooks. We target areas that are not being helped by existing non-governmental organizations, and the West Nile historically has been overlooked.
Has Books for Development sent books or started libraries in
other parts of the world?
We have established over a dozen libraries in Kenya, nine in northern Malawi, six in Zambia, and five in Jamaica. We soon will be sending containers of books to Botswana, Belize, southern Malawi, Ethiopia, and South Sudan, and smaller shipments to Laos and Guyana.
Why did you originally call your organization Good Steward?
And why did you change to Books for Development?
Because we take seriously the charge to be good stewards of limited resources. We do not have any paid staff or a functional office; we utilize volunteer labor and donated books. Last year we began renting our own warehouse—so we have rent payments—but most donations go straight to buying, shipping, and delivering books and establishing libraries. We still take stewardship seriously but changed our name because Books for Development is more descriptive of what we do.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
There is no feeling in the world like seeing a community receive a library—you never forget the happiness you see on the faces of the children, parents, and teachers. Andrew Carnegie rightly said, “A library outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert.”
Have many Texas lawyers volunteered with Books for
We’ve had over a dozen lawyers help over the years. Houston lawyers Kevin Dubose and John Wallace both serve on our board and each have made several trips to Uganda.
What are your future plans for Books for
The need is staggering, and we would love to serve new parts of the world where books are in short supply.
How can people who are interested help Books for
Development? Do you need donations of money or
books? Do you need volunteers for book sorting in Houston or
establishing libraries in developing nations?
We always need more volunteers to help us sort and pack books—typically on Saturday mornings but we can arrange to meet at other times. We also need folks who are willing to travel abroad to help unpack books and establish libraries in developing countries. We always can use donated books. And we need monetary donations to help pay the rent and the shipping costs. We are shipping several containers a year at a cost of $10,000 to $15,000 each. TBJ
For more information about Books for Development, go to booksfordevelopment.com.
HARVEY BROWN is an attorney with the Lanier Law Firm in Houston. He previously served as a justice on the 1st Court of Appeals in Houston and as a judge in the 152nd District Court in Houston.