Here I was, in the shade of a school building, sheltering from the hot African sun with 25 or so excited Grade 4 children, putting together a snake created from toilet roll tubes, and about to parade around the yard singing the Magic Bojabi song – “Bojabi for you, Bojabi for me, Who can remember the name of the tree ….”. Yes, I was back in Zambia volunteering with the Book Bus. (And if you haven’t seen the brilliant Magic Bojabi Tree picture book you really need to find a copy!)
For 3 weeks this summer, I shared a campsite with other international volunteers and Zambian staff working for the charity, and each day travelled to schools to share the love of books, and work with some of the area’s most vulnerable children, hoping to give them motivation and broaden their educational horizons. We travelled around in Book Bus Charlie, a converted safari truck, painted up with Roald Dahl characters (Quentin Blake is patron of the charity) and kitted out with bookshelves and storage for all sorts of resources. We read to children and with them, encouraged them to read aloud and practice their English, shared with them a little about our lives and backgrounds in Europe, and led them in creative activities – crafts, music, and a bit of dancing. One volunteer, at the start, wondered aloud whether our brief visits, however creative, can really make a lasting impact on the children we meet. The answer, according to some of the local staff, was a definite yes, in terms of improving confidence in reading and speaking English, and motivation by making books fun and encouraging a lasting joy of reading.
I was delighted to return to Livingstone, near the majestic Victoria Falls, for a second time. I had volunteered last year, something I thought about for a while, and finally done soon after retiring, and I hoped that a second time would not be a disappointment. Far from it. I met people who remembered me from last year, greeting each other as old friends, and I also felt I got a lot more under the skin of the place this year. I felt less thrown in at the deep end, and I spent more time asking questions, about Zambia and its education system, as well as what the Book Bus does, and getting to understand a bit more.
The Book Bus works in Zambia and Malawi, and employs local staff all year round, so our summer volunteering is only a small part of what it does. In Zambia, the main project is in Kitwe, in the industrial Copperbelt region, where the ambitious I Am A Reader project runs. This has just completed its first year in its new format, working in schools with 3000 children, the Book Bus paying weekly visits to school to act as reading mentors, as well as training teachers in phonics, and donating books to schools. Reading tests at the start and end of each year will monitor the success. But Livingstone also has a year-round presence, with a Book Bus community library based in a poor area of the town, providing drop-in reading sessions, as well as two staff who work in schools in the area as reading mentors. These Zambian staff worked with us in schools, translating where necessary, and helping to make our sessions a success. Their local knowledge was invaluable.
The format of visits had changed a little from last year. The whole project was run during the Zambian school holidays, so we were running a holiday club, with children coming on a voluntary basis. This sometimes meant that a small group on Monday might swell to a large class by Friday, as children told their friends to join them. We visited the same school every day for a week, so we got to know our group, they became more relaxed with us, and there was a definite continuity which made the work a lot more satisfying, and beneficial to pupils. There were also themes that we were asked to follow, which fitted in to the Zambian National Curriculum. So a lot of the work we did was around the theme of waste and recycling. At times we felt a little uncomfortable, trying to explain about recycling, when we knew that these communities have no rubbish collection at all, let alone recycling facilities. But recycling will be in their end of year exams regardless, so we were at least introducing the idea, and using some fantastic books in the process, such as “One Plastic Bag”, based on Isatou Ceesay, a woman in the Gambia who saw the mess that plastic bags were making in her country (a familiar sight around the roads of Livingstone too) and did something about it. This led to us talking about strong and influential African women – including the head teacher of that school, as well as the vice president of Zambia.
I also had the pleasure this year of meeting the Malawian Book Bus team. Three of them, who run the Book Bus library in Mangochi, as well as running literacy workshops in schools, made the long overland trip to Livingstone for a week. The Book Bus had planned a series of workshops, meetings and events for them, along with the Zambian team. They came out to schools with us too, which was a great opportunity to share practical ideas, and I was asked to deliver an afternoon workshop on basic library routines and ideas for display and book promotion. My worries about whether they would already know more than me were unfounded. They had lots of ideas, we had some good discussions and questions, and they all made copious notes. We even had a visiting monkey in the auditorium – a definite first for me!
Stand-out memories include:
- the enthusiasm of children, who at times seemed over excited and noisy, but given something to do, quickly got down to work and tried their hardest.
- driving to work through the National Park and glimpsing zebra and giraffe through the trees
- teachers in community schools who work as volunteers, getting paid only whenever enough parents can afford the small (to us Westerners) termly fee.
- singing and dancing at the community library on our last visit there. The children put on a performance for us, but – no surprise really! – we all had to do a dance for them as well.
- a puppet show performed from the Book Bus, by the children of a family of French volunteers, led by Adrian, our expert story teller – with an audience of fascinated local kids.
To quote Bwalya, our Zambian project co-ordinator, “The Book Bus may be a very small organisation, but what we do is quite big. In schools our presence is felt, and children love what we do.”
I think I will be back again – the Book Bus has a way of getting under your skin!
The Book Bus relies on donations to fund the work it does. If you would like to donate, or are interested in volunteering, please check out
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