African kids readings East Hampton books

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More than 5,000 miles from the East End, at a rural boarding school in the African nation of Namibia, school children are reading books donated by people in East Hampton.

Doreen Niggles, a real estate agent, vice president of the Corcoran Group in East Hampton, and the president of the East Hampton Library’s board of managers, has been sending the books to the A. Gariseb School in Sorris Sorris since 2006.

“They had never had books in the school before,” Ms. Niggles, 46, said recently. “They really want to be there in school, and they really want to learn, but they just have limited supplies, and limited access.”

As a volunteer with the non-profit group, Elephant Human Relations Aid, which assists both elephants and people in the Damaraland region in the remote northern part of the country, Ms. Niggles has traveled to Namibia four times in the past three years. She has helped buy new mattresses for the 220 kids at the boarding school, coordinated programs for other volunteers and collected about 200 books in East Hampton.

This year, Ms. Niggles will be spending her entire summer in the region to help build the school’s first library. Before she goes, Ms. Niggles said she is hoping to raise about $3,000. The money will go toward converting a room in the school into the library. Over time, she said, she’d like to collect between 3,000 and 4,000 children’s books to fill its shelves.

A lifetime resident of East Hampton, Ms. Niggles said that she works most of the year but “suffers from wanderlust” and has spent summers traveling across deserts in Mongolia and India.

After she spent two weeks in 2005 traveling on horseback in Namibia, she decided in the summer of 2006 to give back to the country by volunteering with Elephant Human Relations Aid, or EHRA, to improve access to well water for subsistence farmers and to help carry out research on local elephants.

Although people in the area had a thirst for knowledge, Ms. Niggles said, the students at the A. Gariseb school—named for the leader of the tribe of bushmen in the area—did not have a single book in class.

When she returned to the school the following fall to do more volunteer work, Ms. Niggles brought a carton of books she collected in East Hampton.

“They could not wait to get their hands on the books,” Ms. Niggles said. “They would sit, and read … and identify the words they knew, and then they wanted us to read to them … You realize there was this urgent desire for knowledge.”

Since then, Ms. Niggles said, she has collected children’s books in East Hampton and sent about 20 boxes of about 20 books each to the A. Gariseb School.

The school is located in a remote desert region in one of the least densely populated countries in the world. Ms. Niggles said that the nearest town is about 45 minutes away. Some of the constraints of the region, such as transporting materials across the desert, make organizing a large-scale charitable project somewhat difficult. But on a small scale like Ms. Niggles’ group, she added, things “work beautifully.”

Ms. Niggles spent her entire summer last year in Namibia, coordinating programs with other volunteers who spend most nights camped outside under the stars.

Seeing that the students at the school were sleeping on either decrepit mattresses or the bare floor, Ms. Niggles contacted a group of people in East Hampton and raised $3,000 to buy new mattresses for all the kids.

As she plans for her next visit, Ms. Niggles is continuing to collect books, which she hopes will one day fill the new library there. So far, she’s gotten donations from a variety of sources—from one person who stopped her on the street and handed her a bag full of books to a class of second-grade students at the Ross School who were encouraged to donate by their teacher, Diane Biondo.

Passionate about helping the school, Ms. Niggles said she hopes to continue traveling to Namibia—but she joked she doesn’t know how many more nights she can spend camped out on the ground.

But not having been there since last summer, she admitted that by now, she is “going through withdrawal.”

“When you leave East Hampton and people are complaining from their BMWs about the traffic on Main Street … You arrive there and there is nobody on the road, and all of that washes away,” Ms. Niggles said, “And you really get the perspective on what’s important in life.

“It’s not what you’re eating for dinner,” she said. “For some of these people, it’s are you getting food.”

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