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On The Book Bus

Carol Williams
Mon 23 Oct, 2017

Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature volunteer Carol Williams recently traveled to Africa with an inspiring charity: she tells us more here

Sitting in the back of an open-sided, converted safari truck, blown around by the wind, watching the Zambian street life as we passed, waved at and called to by enthusiastic children and parents – it felt a bit like being a celeb at times, but could only be the Book Bus! This was my African adventure, a few weeks this summer, volunteering with this small but active and high-achieving charity.

I had heard about the Book Bus several years ago, but having recently retired, now was the time to actually get up and go. The Book Bus works in Zambia, Malawi, and Ecuador, using converted buses decorated with Roald Dahl characters to take books and volunteers to schools. The aim is “to improve child literacy rates by providing children with books and the inspiration to read them,” and volunteers, working alongside the local staff, are the key to making this happen. I felt that my skills from years as a school librarian would be a good fit.

So, I packed my bags (taking some books and resources I had gained via fund-raising) and flew to Livingstone in Zambia, near Victoria Falls. The volunteer scheme ran for 8 weeks this summer, with usually 8 volunteers at a time. We were staying at the Waterfront Campsite, where the Book Bus had its own area with safari-style tents. Our “leader” was Bwalya, one of the 3 Zambian staff we worked with, and she was an inspiration – calm and efficient, always there, coping with anything that needed sorting without fuss, and with a wicked sense of humour. She also runs the Book Bus project at Kitwe in the Zambian Copperbelt, where local students are the volunteer workforce.

We also visited local libraries 2 afternoons a week, to offer one-to-one reading sessions. At Zwelopili, a small school in a deprived area of town, this involved queues of 100 or more excited children waiting their turn.

 This school has no water or electricity, and just one classroom. There's also the Reading Room, a library which the Book Bus helped build and set up, now run by 2 amazing local volunteers, Claudia and James, who keep it looking smart and welcoming, organise reading sessions, and lend books to children. It is a resource for the whole community; while we were there, a group of women arrived to do some studying, and one child spoke of taking a book home and taking turns reading with the whole family around the kitchen table.

 Some of the books that went down well are favourites in the UK. Many of the books have an African flavour, but come from the UK. We had a few discussions about this as volunteers: should we not be using at least some local books published in Zambia (apparently hard to source). And while it is great to reflect children’s own lives in the books they see (Fatou, Fetch the WaterElmer, and Anna Hibiscus are beautiful examples), should we not be expanding their horizons? One volunteer, Adrian, insisted on using We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, rather than We’re Going on a Lion Hunt – because the latter has too many syllables and doesn’t scan! As he is a superb storyteller, we bowed to his advice, and the kids were spellbound by the book. The essentials are really to engage the children with books, and develop their enthusiasm for reading, so using quality stories is the bottom line – and a mix of African-based and more European books gives them a broad experience.

This school has no water or electricity, and just one classroom. There's also the Reading Room, a library which the Book Bus helped build and set up, now run by 2 amazing local volunteers, Claudia and James, who keep it looking smart and welcoming, organise reading sessions, and lend books to children. It is a resource for the whole community; while we were there, a group of women arrived to do some studying, and one child spoke of taking a book home and taking turns reading with the whole family around the kitchen table.

 Some of the books that went down well are favourites in the UK. Many of the books have an African flavour, but come from the UK. We had a few discussions about this as volunteers: should we not be using at least some local books published in Zambia (apparently hard to source). And while it is great to reflect children’s own lives in the books they see (Fatou, Fetch the WaterElmer, and Anna Hibiscus are beautiful examples), should we not be expanding their horizons? One volunteer, Adrian, insisted on using We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, rather than We’re Going on a Lion Hunt – because the latter has too many syllables and doesn’t scan! As he is a superb storyteller, we bowed to his advice, and the kids were spellbound by the book. The essentials are really to engage the children with books, and develop their enthusiasm for reading, so using quality stories is the bottom line – and a mix of African-based and more European books gives them a broad experience.

The Book Bus was founded 11 years ago by publishing legend Tom Maschler. He had discovered and published authors including Doris Lessing and Salman Rushdie, brought together Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake, and, on retirement, decided to do something to take literacy to those who had limited opportunities. "I began to think about all the children who’d never had the opportunity to hold a book, to look at beautiful illustrations and never had the chance to learn how to read. I began to think about all the lost opportunities that would mean for these children. I knew this was the time for me to do something that would help." And so he filled a bus with books, persuaded Quentin Blake to decorate it, put it on display in Trafalgar Square, and then took it to Zambia.

My lasting impressions from the trip are all to do with the people. Inspirational adults have set up and run schools in deprived areas, getting money to improve them from wherever they can. Enthusiastic children keen to learn are a bit of a cliché, but it was true. At schools it was sometimes chaotic, but there were no “discipline” issues, and given something to do, they would put their all into the work they did. It really is true that we in Europe do need sometimes to appreciate what we take for granted: education, libraries, easy access to IT. The Book Bus is obviously well respected, and making a real impact in Zambia.

Bwalya summed up the positivity in her comment on reading: “Imagine a world without books; when you read, your adventure is on, so if you can’t read, you’re missing out on so much. Open a book and go on that adventure!”

If you think you are a potential Book Bus volunteer, or would like to donate to support their work, find out more:

www.thebookbus.org

Twitter @thebookbus

Facebook @bookbus


This post is tagged in

book bus Zambia literacy

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