03. October 2005 · Comments Off on Light a Single Candle · Categories: A Href, General, World

As a child, I ran across the quotation “Better to light a single candle than to sit and curse the darkness.”

Carlos Leite, a Brazilian who lives on the edge of poverty, seems to have done just that. Illiterate, he has amassed a library of 10,000 volumes, which he has made available to his community of Sao Goncala. Brazilians, on average, read less than 2 books per year (America reads 5, according to the article). There are few or no public libraries there, and although the government has launched a campaign to build public libraries, the wheels of bureaucracy grind slowly.

Leite couldn’t wait.

“Those of us who grew up here, we know what the needs of the community are,” he said. “I stopped and thought, ‘Wait a minute. There’s not a single library. The schools have libraries, but there’s no public library.’ So I said, ‘Let’s make this dream come true.’ ”

When he asked members of his small bicycling group to help him collect used books, “they all thought I was a little crazy,” he said.

But they humored him, and the nameless cycling club got a moniker: “The Madmen of Sao Goncalo.” Or so they seemed at first to the neighbors whose doors they knocked on.

“Some people thought, ‘You must be joking. Here in this community, people ask for clothes, but to ask for books!’ ” said Ronaldo Pena, 48, one of the cyclists.

They inaugurated the library on March 20, 2004, with 100 volumes, most of them literary and historical treatises donated by someone Pena knew. Since then, the group has been amassing books at a feverish pace. Many come from rich Brazilians in whose homes they work as cleaners, handymen and the like.

Because everything is by donation, the collection is eclectic and quixotic, but impressive in scope: from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie, Umberto Eco to political theorist Antonio Gramsci, William Faulkner to James Joyce, not to mention textbooks and reference works. There’s no Dewey decimal system, or even strict alphabetical order; books are simply grouped by subject.

“All the material you need is here,” said Gabriele Sthefanine Silva Azeveda, a seventh-grader who was busy one recent afternoon copying down information about Central America from an encyclopedia. The nearest public library is 20 minutes away by car — not that many residents here own cars — and her school library is often of little use.

“It has fewer books than here,” she said.

Leite and his companion have been pushed to a tiny back alcove of their small house, and many books are still in boxes due to lack of space. His library is run by volunteers, and his bills are mounting. Libraries need lights and fans so the patrons can be comfortable. Someone donated a computer so they could catalog the books, but no one has had time to do so – all their time is taken up either working at their regular jobs, or running the library.

It’s a challenge just to keep the library open Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 8 p.m., and often later when there’s special need: a report due, a test the next day.

“There’s a lot of demand,” Leite said. “We have lawyers, doctors, teachers, psychologists coming in to do research.”

He depends on Da Penha and his friends to staff the library, all of them unpaid. Leite continues to do construction and maintenance work to try to meet the mounting bills. How do you run a library without overhead lights? Or fans to keep patrons cool and books from going moldy on those hot tropical afternoons? Or tape and glue to repair broken spines and torn pages?

Not a single penny has come from official sources — “not from the politicians, not from the government,” said Da Penha, who is on medical leave from her job as a cleaning lady at a local school.

“What’s here is what we’ve done ourselves,” she said. “We’ve sacrificed a lot to help the people here. But it’s a sacrifice of love.”

The one thing the article didn’t tell me was how I can help this man. I’d love to send him some money to help with his bills, but have no idea how to do that. Can anyone tell me how?

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