D.C. immigrant collects books to send home to Cameroon

March 13, 2012

On Saturday mornings, Oliver Fontem and his two sons, Michael, 3, and Dennis, 5, travel from their home in Upper Marlboro to the District’s Northeast Branch Library on Seventh Street to hunt for buried treasures.

The building’s basement is full of boxes of books, which they survey for content and durability. Fontem, 42, said that with a trove of stories tugging at their imaginations, it can be hard to stay on task.

“They don’t work, but I can’t really complain because they’re reading,” he said of his children.

Fontem is collecting books to send back to his home country of Cameroon. He hopes that the donations will encourage the people of the country’s southwest region to build a new library and community center. Since he started the effort last fall, he has gathered more than 100 boxes of books. In August, he’ll ship them overseas.

Before immigrating to the United States in 2003, Fontem worked for eight years as a school librarian in the southwest region, where he said the lack of educational resources is “devastating.” The region is estimated to have a population of a little more than 1 million but has only two public libraries, he said, one of which is run by the French cultural center and promotes the French government.

“So really, there is one public library that is removed from a political agenda,” he said. “That’s why the initiative came to be.”

In the United States, Fontem worked a series of odd jobs before finding his way back to the library system. In 2007, he joined the staff of the Northeast Library on Seventh Street and last year transferred to the Southeast Library just eight blocks away.

Vincent Morris, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Northeast Library, said he and his wife immediately bonded with Fontem. She was a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon years ago and understood his concern for the country’s education system.

“It’s almost impossible for Americans to imagine how few resources this country has,” Morris said. “We wanted to help him.”

The group receives books through community donations, some of which it gives to local charter schools and others it sells in semi-annual book sales. But over the years, Morris said they have accumulated a large collection of books that go into storage. He offered the collection to Fontem, who goes to the library on his day off to dig through it.

“Because Capitol Hill is so diverse, we get a fantastic cross section of books here, spanning all sorts of languages and subjects,” Morris said. “If Oliver keeps at it, he could end up with a very solid foundation for a library back home.”

Fontem is working with Lecudo, a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing and improving Cameroon. Together, their ultimate goal is to promote literacy for children and adults in the country. Because shipping costs will be high, Fontem is careful to only send books that are sure to help this cause.

“His focus is on reference books, textbooks and dictionaries, preferably hardcover because it’s more durable,” Morris said. “Nothing against Jay McInerney, but Oliver doesn’t really need that.”

To donate books to Oliver Fontem’s cause, e-mail Vincent Morris at vsmorris@gmail.com or stop at the Northeast Library at 2 p.m. Saturday, when the Friends of the Northeast Library will be celebrating library’s 80th birthday.

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