The Book Farmer of Botswana

A former teacher finds a new life bringing books to Botswana.

By Salley Shannon
Pam Shelton with the Khanie sisters: from front, Sheila, Betty, Mpho and Connie.
Photograph: Photo by Henner Frankenfeld

IN THE modest assembly hall onthe campus of the senior secondary school in Maun, Botswana, about 50 students, teachers and librarians are poring over stacks of books of every description. It’s a sweltering day in October 2008, but the visitors are wearing their best attire. In one corner, three teenage girls are absorbed in the pages of a romance novel, hands covering their mouths as they giggle. In the middle of the crowd, a tall boy flips through a Hardy Boys novel. Petite, blonde Pam Shelton, dressed in khaki shorts and a T-shirt (all the better to lug around piles of books), thrusts a hefty paperback into his hands. “You like the Hardy Boys,” she says to the student, “so I’m sure you’ll enjoy this thriller. If you promise to read it, you may take it home without a donation.” The young man hesitates; it’s a thick book. Shelton bounces rapid fire into a plot summary, and two minutes later, he is smiling, nodding, eager to dive in.

Shelton, the 59-year-old founder of the Botswana Book Project (BBP; botswanabookproject.org), is doing what sheloves best: matching people and books. It’s the second day of a five-day book-choosing marathon, and the books, shipped from the United States, are the star attraction; about 25,000 of them are heaped onto rows of folding chairs and stashed in boxes lining the walls. The Batswana (as the people of Botswana call themselves) make their choices, give a small donation, then  take the books back to their schools, day care centers, hospitals, AIDS clinics and homes. Since the program’s inception in 1999, countless individu-als and 458 institutions have received a total of 320,000 books through the BBP, which is fueled almost en-tirely by Shelton’s relentless desire to promote the mind-expanding power of reading. Once a children’s librarian, Shelton describes herself as a “book farmer, seeding Botswana with books and waiting for a crop of readers.”

Thirteen years ago, Pam Shelton was 46, long divorced and feeling decidedly restless. She was just finish-ing up her twenty-third year as head librarian at the Shelburne Village School, in Shelburne, Vermont, where she’d built an enormously successful reading program for the school’s 900 children in grades K through eight. That fall, her only son would be heading back to Harvard, and Shelton wasn’t really looking forward to the start of another school year. When friends who were working for USAID in Botswana in-vited her for a visit, she quickly bought a ticket.

Within days of arriving she met a safari guide, and romance blossomed. She also fell in love with the lifestyle and good-humored courtesy of the Batswana, now well-known to many Americans through Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. Shelton wanted to learn about village life, so her guide arranged for her to spend a week in Marutsa, a tiny, remote place in the north. Shelton arrived with a sleeping bag, a mosquito net, water, crackers and canned tuna, and she slept in a small, round hut with a mud floor. Her bathroom consisted of bushes. When she helped village women fetch water from a stream, they had to hide from thirsty elephants. It was extreme culture shock, “terrifying and exhilarating at the same time,” she recalls. “I felt more alive than I had in years.”

With the exception of one man who translated for her, the villagers spoke only Setswana (one of the na-tional languages), despite the fact that English is the official language of the country.  “A troop of small boys followed my every move,” says Shelton happily. “I was the best show in town.”  

Marutsa had no school, and the women told Shelton that their greatest wish was for their children to learn to read. Wanting to return a bit of the friendliness she’d been shown, Shelton held a story hour every morning in a dusty clearing under a tree, acting out the tales, to the delight of every child within walking distance. “I smiled so much, my face felt sore,” she recalls, “but it really is true that a smile is a universal language.”

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