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When Lamin M. "Lang" Dibba was growing up in Gambia, his father used to say that if you trip on a rock and find money, you'd better go back and kiss the rock.

"I said, 'Dad, I will do it,'" recalled Dibba, who now lives in Minneapolis. "My dad was rich in spirit, he was rich inside, he was rich in a way that money can't buy."

Dibba's way of honoring his father's memory is raising money to send donated books to his native country. Last year, 10 years after its start, his 1 Million Books for the Gambia project celebrated having shipped literally 1 million books, ranging from children's books to college texts, to the tiny African country of 2.5 million.

The project began unofficially in 2010, when a local nonprofit shipped books to start a medical library at one of Gambia's few hospitals. The nonprofit partnered with Books for Africa, a 34-year-old St. Paul-based organization that has sent 56 million books to countries all over the continent. Dibba, already involved with Books for Africa, was invited to participate.

The Million Books project officially started in 2012 with 44,000 volumes, distributed to schools on a two-day walk across Gambia (easier than it sounds; the distance between the northern and southern borders is about the same as Minneapolis to Chaska). Accompanied by a truck full of books, he and others "were dropping them off as we went," he said.

Along the way, a crowd of students and staff from schools in the area joined the walk. In a video of the event, kids can be seen singing, laughing, holding books ... and reading.

Books for Africa founder Tom Warth was there. "Watching them come along was just incredible — they were all cheering and laughing."

Dibba's voice broke as he recalled the experience, and he paused for a long moment.

"I start to cry when I think about it," he said. "We impacted so many people's lives in those two days."

A need back home

Gambia is classified by the United Nations as one of the world's 46 least developed countries, which the U.N. defines as "low-income countries confronting severe structural impediments to sustainable development." Average annual income is about $4,000.

When Dibba was in school, the only people who had books were the teachers. The students worked with pencils and notebooks. He's now in his 60s, but little has improved since then. Library shelves often are empty. There aren't enough pencils and notebooks.

"There is a need back home, and as long as I'm alive and here I'll work tirelessly," he said.

A former goalkeeper on a soccer team in Gambia, Dibba came to the United States 41 years ago when offered a sports scholarship at Rogers State University in Oklahoma. His host family helped Dibba adjust to life in the United States and gave him "the road map to make it in this country."

In his father's rock-kissing analogy, that Oklahoma family is the rock. Dibba still visits them frequently.

"If some people take care of you when you need it, you'd better not forget," he said. "I cannot pay them back enough."

He transferred to a university in Abilene, Texas, and worked at Steak and Ale. A few years later, he was transferred to its Bloomington location and worked there for 25 years before the company went bankrupt in 2008. He bought apartments, condominiums and houses that provided rental income until 2020, when he sold the last of them. He now manages the Buca di Beppo restaurant in Minneapolis.

When he began working on the Million Books project, Dibba called a childhood friend and asked him to get involved in the distribution. Samba Faal is the former mayor of Gambia's capital of Banjul and now is a lecturer at the University of the Gambia. There's "an opportunity to be of service to more than just the city of Banjul," Dibba said.

Faal has also witnessed students responding to a shipment from Million Books.

"One can see the excitement on the faces of schoolchildren as they flip over the pages of the donated books," he said in an email. The project has "contributed immensely in the development of education in Gambia. Encouraging a reading culture and giving kids access to quality education "is a recipe for success in our development efforts."

Gambian educator Fatou Bin Jobe, founder of A Better Chance Learning Center, mentioned to an American friend that the school needed books. The friend called Dibba, "and voila!" she said in an email. Books arrived.

"Our philosophy of developing a sense of inquiry and lifelong learning starts with reading at an early age," she said. "Most of our children already are voracious readers by grade 3."

Studying like crazy

On a recent trip to Gambia, Dibba visited a school where students sat in a library whose once barren shelves were now filled with books.

"They were studying like crazy," Dibba said, his voice breaking again. "Oh, I felt good."

Despite having met the million-books goal, Dibba is far from finished. His next goal is another million books, this time delivered in five years instead of 10.

"I'm not discounting what we've done," Dibba said. "But I sure don't want to feel like we've accomplished half of what we intend to do. No, we have a long way to go."

Some of the children who received children's books are now college age, so there's a need for college-level texts. Another great need is computers: "We found out that computers were pretty much nonexistent in most parts of the country," Dibba said.

He'd also like to repeat a project in which he helped St. Paul-based Sanneh Foundation deliver bicycles to Gambia — helping students get to a school that could be five miles from their home.

"For now, the task is still there, the need is still there — until we can go to every corner and find someone reading a book from Books for Africa," Dibba said. "If that happens I'll retire the same day. Until then the job won't be complete."