Bela’s books: Rancho Santa Fe teen supports African libraries

Bela Gowda sent off books to the African Library Project in November.
Bela Gowda sent off books to the African Library Project in November.

Rancho Santa Fe’s Bela Gowda is doing her part to share the love of reading with students a world away through the African Library Project.

At 15 years old, Bela has been working for the Africa Library Project since 2018 and has helped create six libraries in countries like Malawi, Ghana and Uganda. The Bishop’s School sophomore’s goal is to stock 10 libraries before she graduates high school.

Her latest drive is focused on creating a library in Lesotho by the end of June.

Founded in California in 2005, the African Library Project’s mission is to partner with volunteers to create, improve and sustain libraries in African communities, changing lives book by book. The libraries provide access to reading material and resources to advance literacy and nurture students’ growth in and out of the classroom.

Bela has always had a love of books, instilled by her mother Shilpi Somoya Gowda, an award-winning and internationally bestselling author. (Her latest book, “The Shape of Family”, was published in March 2020.)

“Through my research, I learned that some of the kids in Africa have never even held a book in their lives,” Bela said. “It’s insane to me because reading was such a big part of building me into who I am today. It’s important that all kids have that experience as well.”

With the help of volunteers like Bela, in the last 16 years the African Library Project has created 3,425 libraries across 13 African countries, nearly four million books shipped to Africa.

In addition to her ongoing work with African Library Project, during the peak of the pandemic, Bela ran Operation Nourish with her sister Mira, delivering high-quality meals from local restaurants to healthcare workers. She also volunteered with Melodies for Remedies, a group of Bishop’s students that held Zoom concerts for seniors.

To create one African library takes about 1,000 gently-used children’s books plus the costs of shipping, about $650.

Bela has been successful in leading book drives at school and in her community and has partnered with Barnes & Noble and the RSF Library’s Book Cellar to receive donated books. To help raise funds, she has foregone birthday gifts and sold lemonade and baked goods.

She kept on collecting through the pandemic and her family’s garage is now filled with books. Her last shipment went to Uganda in November: 1,030 books for African kids.

Where Bela said she has struggled is collecting enough funds to ship the boxes of books, which she packs and sends out from Rancho Santa Fe Post Office. She is looking for her community’s help to get more books into more children’s hands.

To donate, visit To learn more about The African Library Project, visit