By Alice Trimmer
Ngozi Agbim was a dear friend and colleague whose life was suddenly and tragically cut short by a traffic accident one terrible day last June. Ngozi’s life and career embodied many of the ideals of the Murray Hill Institute. Ngozi was a librarian by profession and for many years was the head of the library at LaGuardia Community College. The library is at the heart of any educational institution, and under Ngozi’s leadership, the library at LaGuardia became known throughout the vast City University system for its outstanding service. While maintaining a distinguished career and busy family life as wife and mother of three, Ngozi always made time to befriend a wide variety of women from all walks of life. In addition, she and her husband Silas would periodically leave their home in Brooklyn to pay their families a visit in their beloved Nigeria. One of those visits gave rise to a project that stretched over several years—what we came to call “The Enugu Book Project.”
The project had its roots in the late 1990s, when Ngozi visited Enugu, a city near her hometown in Nigeria. She saw that the resources for education in that city were very poor; schools were in disrepair and the children had no books. At the same time, there were several universities and a medical school in the area. She visited Uzammiri Study Center, which was a gathering place for students to come to study, and realized that they had no books or other resources. When she got back to New York, Ngozi marshaled a group of her friends and colleagues to help. Under Ngozi’s leadership, the group formulated a project to seek donations of books and bring them over to Africa to set up a lending library in this center for the use of the students and other people of the community. Working in partnership with Service Brings Smiles, an initiative that organizes service projects for young people, the plan was to bring college students to Enugu to spend time repairing a local school as well as setting up the library and possibly a computer lab as well. But then the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center took place, and everything changed. In the post-attack atmosphere, it was no longer deemed wise to travel, especially with young students.
So Ngozi and her New York friends revised the plan: the team would catalog all the books donated and send them over as a completed library. Soon the books came pouring in. Ngozi and her family had some empty space on the first floor of their house. Half of the floor was devoted to Silas’ office. The other half became the staging area for the project. Nearly every Saturday afternoon, Ngozi would invite her friends and colleagues over to work on the books. There were all sorts of books—textbooks, books of history and literature, novels, how-to books. The team would quickly review and sort them, setting aside for discard those that were not suitable for the library because of content or poor condition, and passing the others to Ngozi. Ngozi would catalog them, using an online service that would return the completed sets of cards by mail. When the cards came back, they were placed in the books and filed in the card catalog; Ngozi had acquired an old-fashioned wooden card catalog for this purpose. The completed books were packed in boxes and the boxes taped shut. This was a multi-step process that went on for years. All in all, about 1,500 books were boxed up for shipment, finally finishing in early 2006.
As the project was winding down, the challenge of finding an affordable and secure way to ship the books had to be confronted. Finally, with the help of friends in Nigeria, the books were safely delivered. But the card catalog went missing for quite awhile, until it was finally located in a warehouse. Sarah Berlinghieri Krawczyk recalls that Ngozi was there to witness the grand “reveal.” “As they opened each box, they poured over the books, looking in them and reading them, as a hungry person looking at a gourmet meal presented to him! They were so grateful! They were so awed and excited that Ngozi had to keep bringing them back to the task at hand—getting the books on the shelves and setting up the library!”
The Enugu project is remembered fondly by all those who participated. The book afternoons were incredible, a unique kind of experience for many. They had the atmosphere of an old-fashioned quilting bee, the rooms filled with the joy of shared work and conversation. The volunteers came from all over—women who Ngozi had met at professional and cultural gatherings, her fellow librarians, people she met in her parish. Ngozi had a gentle way of asking for help that rendered it unthinkable to say “No,” and her example inspired everyone to invite their own friends and family to help. The variety of professions and backgrounds among the group made for lively conversation as we shared workplace and other life experiences, opinions, and free advice. The afternoons always ended laughing and talking while sharing an evening meal in Ngozi and Silas’ dining room. The commitment of the group was impressive, in light of how many years it went on, and also considering that the trek to Brooklyn was lengthy for many. Some people came only a few times, some came very consistently, but all left energized by the friendly atmosphere and by working towards a common goal that would benefit an entire community.
Around the same time that the Enugu project was winding down, Ngozi retired from LaGuardia. Far from just taking it easy, she put her energies in co-founding the US branch of the Harambee Foundation, a global initiative that “Helps Africans Help Themselves.” Harambee USA partners with African-based organizations to support educational and developmental initiatives. State-side, the organization seeks to educate people to recognize the richness and complexity of African culture. At its international meeting in Rome in October, the Harambee Foundation launched the “Ngozi award” to honor Ngozi’s memory. The award will recognize the work of “a professional journalist who has distinguished themselves in spreading an image of African that goes beyond existing stereotypes.”
A leader in her profession, a creative and energetic supporter of her homeland, and a loyal and generous friend, Ngozi showed us by her example how it is truly possible for one person to be an impetus to bring good to many.