This is an opportunity for financial support, for book donations as well as volunteering in person.
We signed up to travel as volunteers with the Book Bus in Zambia.
This British based charity relies heavily on the one young woman who runs it here: Kelly is multi talented and accepted and loved by many Zambians.
After six years here, she even speaks the local language and capably runs the book bus.
On the website, the book bus is a joyful illustration by Quentin Blake, the famous illustrator of Roald Dahl books and board member of this NGO.
In reality, the Book Bus is a huge old Safari vehicle with seats and open sides. The back and side walls have book shelves along the lengths. Together with volunteers who come from around the world, it visits local schools and community centers to introduce reading and books to the children.
When we arrive with the Book Bus, children come running from everywhere - alleys and homes - they all run and follow the book bus to the community centre, which is a small 3 room hut made of plastered walls and a corrugated tin roof. Red dust flies everywhere.
Kelly recently had a new classroom added - beautiful painted in bright blue. She even had someone pay for new desks. The children were so excited to have desks to sit in, they stayed and waited all day, refusing to go home before the desks arrived.
I read Emma and introduced them to my chicken puppet. Their eyes popped out when they saw Emma moving. When an African child smiles, it is like the sun breaks through the clouds - brilliant and shiny. Then we read a butterfly story, did some counting songs and made paper butterflies. You can tell that a visit from the book bus, is the highlight of the day for these children.
A 14 year old sat quietly coloring - an activity that Kindergartens in North America might do. Her name is Abigail Nakawala and she is in Grade 5. She just started school last year and used to stay at home helping her parents. When she started school she couldn’t even write her name. Abigail was asked what she thinks of the library. She says “It is a great place because even if you can’t read, it makes it attractive and makes you want to read. Her favourite book: is Tarzan, because “Tarzan has a good heart and he helps people”. The story helps her learn how to help people. When she finishes reading Tarzan she will get to know another book so she can learn a lot. Abigail wants to be a teacher because she wants to help others learn what she is learning at school. She doesn’t want anyone to miss what she has missed before.
For more details on the Book Bus, and to find out where else it operates, see:
Is the Book Bus for you?
Voluntourism is huge around the world. It is so much more meaningful to spend your holidays helping others, than to just fly somewhere and lie on the beach, right? But volunteering abroad can be very expensive, even when you know that part of your costs will help others.
The Zambia Book Bus’s office is based in the UK and has one person running and coordinating the bus in Livingstone. She has been here for 6 years and done an amazing job. Everyone respects her: the local people all know her, the children everywhere come running and calling “Kelly! Kelly!” The police, the store people, taxi drivers, everyone seems to know her and love her. Can you imagine living in a tent for 6 years with nothing but a few clothes and the strong determination to make life a little happier for many children, to help them realize the joy of books and wanting to learn?
The Book Bus visits Livingstone area schools. Kelly and the volunteer team read books to the children and conduct activities based on the books. For instance, today I read two African animal tales to them and then they drew an animal and decorated it. We also made book journals so that they can keep track of the books they read.
Even though I have spent most of my life in children’s literature, and done 12 years of weekly story time in a library, it’s the little things here that blow me away. The kids have no frame of reference for books about so many concepts. Of course, books are meant to be a window on the world and will teach them new things. But how can you relate to a pet fish when you live in Africa? Why would people paint eggs? Or keep a dog inside a house? These kids have no electricity or running water. Many people live in their small home or hut and struggle for a daily living. Books about food? Can’t use them… the kids are hungry. Even Dr. Seuss’ “You have feet in your shoes…” doesn’t fly here for many children.
In order to hand out coloring sheets, following the story, we (the current 4 staff members) sit and draw (or trace) 100 pictures of butterflies. No photocopier here!
The Book Bus accommodations are primitive. When we first arrived I was quite amazed at just how primitive. We sleep in a regular tent - no wooden floor, no veranda. Just a plain tent with, some broken, zippers in the red dust. There’s a kind of gazebo with a large picnic table where we spend most of the evening. It has a light. We cook outside on another picnic table. Dishes are stored in plastic bins. There is a fridge and a kettle and a power bar to charge our batteries.
After only 3 days in Zambia, I realize that I now find this place quite luxurious. There’s a pool with cold, refreshing water. A dusty bathroom block has toilets and showers with, sometimes, warm water. After working hard all day, Kelly cooks a pot of food for all of us and we do the dishes.
If you want luxury, don’t come.
But do come if you don’t mind camping in the heat, without air conditioning, it’s an interesting place. The Book Bus is based by a house with a kind-of-campground. It is shady, sheltered and safe. It is 20 minute walk into town to the supermarket, which has most things you could wish for. And your cost to participate includes all meals. You can hand wash your clothes in a large old bathtub outside, and laundry hung on the wires is dry within two hours.
We only work mornings, leaving around 8:30 and returning by 1 or 2 PM. (called 13 or 14 hours in Zambia).
The book bus takes us to a different school each day where we read stories to and with the children, followed by activities. Their school has no paper or glue or scissors. Even adults ask shyly if they can make an elephant mask or color a picture… In some places, the book bus attracts 300 children!
On Monday we drove out of town to a village school along the main road. A large group of children, grades 2 and 3, were overjoyed to see us. “Book-a-bussie!” they call. We read stories. They all love Emma and nearly fall over when she moves… Then we color paper chickens and make butterflies. “Teacha, teacha!” they call, wanting crayons or showing their work.
When we came ‘home’ with the book bus, we turned one large sheet of hardboard into a chalkboard by painting it with blackboard paint. And two large squares of soft board were turned into brightly painted bulletin boards. Kelly has worked hard to realize new schools and classrooms. And now she helps with getting desks and turning these spaces into bright, happy classrooms. She’s helped young women to became assertive teachers and children to want to learn how to read.
If you love storytelling, reading picture books, and working with kids - do consider coming here. You can work as a volunteer for two week stretches. We saw more things than any tourist will ever see, being able to visit isolated villages where people opened their homes to us. Places you will not visit while on a regular ‘safari’. Be sure to check out the website for details:
If you live in The Netherlands, check out Mambulu Safaris: http://www.mambulu.com They are the Book Bus’ official rep in Holland and planned our entire Africa trip for us.