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Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.


The headlines from Africa have been grim.

Flooding in Libya last weekend from torrential rains and two dam breaches may have killed an unimaginable 20,000 people. The natural disaster — compounded by the man-made disaster of rival governments splitting Libya — came just days after the worst earthquake in more than a century killed more than 3,000 Moroccans.

To the south of these afflicted countries lies a continent-spanning "coup belt," with the overthrow of the Gabon government just the latest instability in a region wracked by it.

Given the grave events, it's understandable if many missed the news that at last week's summit in India among the top 20 industrialized nations, the G-20 made the Africa Union a member, just as it had previously done with the European Union.

The move reflects Africa's economic trajectory, which, if demography is destiny, will only grow, since it's the youngest continent.

With that youth comes an ever-increasing need for education — and an ever-increasing need for books.

It's a need that for 35 years the St. Paul-based organization Books for Africa has heroically tried to address. Since its founding in 1988 by Tom Warth, it's shipped more than 59 million books and six million digital books — textbooks, nonfiction, and fiction — to every African country. That's an extraordinary logistical achievement, let alone a political one, given the differing forms of governance across the continent.

While a nongovernmental entity itself, Books for Africa's outreach helps the U.S. government, and by extension America, through its exemplary "soft-power" diplomacy, all while staying firmly rooted in Minnesota.

"That should tell your readers that the people of Minnesota care very much about international development and international education," Patrick Plonski, executive director of Books for Africa, told an editorial writer before a Wednesday event in Minneapolis marking the 35th anniversary of the organization. From its early days, propelled by local Rotary Clubs, "Minnesotans got this thing going, they got it off the ground, and they've kept it going for 35 years," said Plonski, originally from Belle Plaine, who added that "I take it as a point of pride that we're still here in Minnesota."

And yet, as with so many Minnesota nongovernmental organizations, Plonski is focused on looking forward as much as looking back, including analyzing the continent's evolving needs. The 35th anniversary "is an opportunity to celebrate, but it's also an opportunity to take stock of what needs to be done in the future, because there are still many schools and libraries and universities that don't have enough books."

Including in South Sudan, the continent's newest nation, which gained its independence just in 2011.

The country's "passion for education is really great," Philip J. Natana, South Sudan's ambassador to the U.S., told an editorial writer. Natana, attending the anniversary event, recalled returning refugees who were asked to name their top need. "Everybody said schools," said the ambassador.

The priority is profound, Natana said, because "education is really actually a very major factor in stabilizing any society. And if you look at the region and most of the violence or the people involved in the violence, the fighting on behalf of the government, or fighting for rebel groups, it's because they never had that opportunity of really going to school and getting some skills that can provide them with jobs."

Books for Africa can't solve all those problems, of course. But it has helped, and is continuing to. Including in South Sudan, where it will soon send more than 110,000 books in just the latest example of a local-global ethos that brings hope even amid recent devastation.