Originally published in the Greenfield Recorder.

Published: 8/12/2019 2:00:15 AM

Children in Sierra Leone hold books they were given by the Greenfield-based Traprock Center for Peace & Justice. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Like 1,000 paper cranes being folded to commemorate the prayers of Hiroshima children for peace, the 100 paperback books that are flying into the hands of young readers in West Africa mark a conviction by Greenfield-based Traprock Center for Peace & Justice that young people can help build a better world.

The books, with titles like “I Have a Dream,” “Wangari’s Trees for Peace” and “I am Malala” are greeting students at two schools in Freetown, Sierra Leone, after Traprock board member Pat Hynes met Kadie Sesay, president of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom Sierra Leone a year ago at the African Women’s Feminist Peace Conference.

Traprock’s Children’s Books Collaborative — which has already placed 100 books about peace and justice in public libraries in Greenfield, Turners Falls and Orange — caught the attention of Sesay, a former schoolteacher in the West African country. She suggested to Hynes a collaboration with the American organization to get similar books into schools in her country.

Hynes, who’s found test-focused teaching an impediment in getting schools here to accept Traprock’s grants for books with themes of social justice, peace and the environment, welcomed the opportunity to introduce them in a country where equality for women, fostering democracy and lifting the country out of poverty are all key issues.

The degree of women’s equality in a country, Hynes says, is the best predictor of how peaceful or conflict-ridden that country is, according to WomanStats studies of 175 countries. She stresses the importance of encouraging young people to help promote gender equality.

Hynes, a Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom board member, convinced the global organization’s Boston chapter to contribute toward helping the Sierra Leonian chapter acquire computer equipment and other support to help in its work.

It might seem that reading Nicola Davies’ “The Lion Who Stole My Arm” or “I am Malala” — about the Nobel-winning teen who advocated for educating girls in Afghanistan — wouldn’t do much to save a world in which democracies are threatened and the dangers of climate change are ignored. Planting seeds for grassroots community resources to encourage peace also represents a departure from the kinds of citizen demonstrations Traprock was best known for in the 1970s and ’80s.

But Hynes sees ways the book project — like Traprock’s 25-year-old Journey Camp for girls and its Young Peacemakers Awards — can inspire young people to “dream behind their horizons,” in her words. It can open their minds to role models fostering diversity and conflict resolution.

In Sierra Leone, where female genital mutilation persists and there are ongoing efforts to recover from the effects of a decade-long 1990s “Blood Diamond” civil war that left more than 120,000 dead and millions of refugees following mass brutality by children soldiers, the collaborative book project also offers hope, Sesay believes.

Hynes and Sesay hope the African children, ages 4 to 16 and including more than 650 high school students, can become ambassadors for conflict resolution and environmental stewardship, encouraging peers as well as adults “in the community and beyond” to follow the examples of Malala Yousafzai, Martin Luther King Jr. and Kenyan Nobel Prize-winning environmentalist Wangari Maathai, among others.

There are also tree planting and other environmental education projects planned as part of a broader community outreach.

By finding relevant role models for children, Hynes says, Traprock hopes these books with broad, international themes of diversity and equality can empower young people to become active players in restoring democracy, resolving conflict and fighting income inequality within their societies.

“Books can affect young people in ways to inspire, to dream beyond their horizons,” she says. Especially if they’re read in a classroom or another group setting with a teacher or parent to help them interpret the lessons, she believes, books can serve to enlighten young readers — in our communities as well as in other countries — to move toward a more peaceful future.

Richie Davis was a writer and editor for more than 40 years at the Greenfield Recorder. His email is richie@richiedavis.net.