On 8th July 2016, I flew out to Livingstone, Zambia to volunteer for a few weeks on The Book Bus project. The Book Bus is a UK registered charity whose mission is to provide access to books for children who have none, and to help inspire a lifelong love of reading to provide children with greater opportunities for the future. Book Bus volunteers act as reading mentors to inspire children to engage with books, improve their English and encourage their creativity. I fancied doing something different with my annual leave and had always wanted to visit Africa, so when I saw an advert for Book Bus volunteers, I knew it was right up my street. Having worked in libraries for several years and with a lifelong love of reading and books, the chance to share this passion and my skills with children in Zambia seemed too good an opportunity to miss. In fact the mission of The Book Bus is very similar to that of Renfrewshire Libraries and the Skoobmobile, the children’s mobile library service for Renfrewshire. So on 9th of July, after a 24-hour journey and months of fundraising, my bag full of camping gear, books and craft materials, I finally arrived in Africa.
The Book Bus project is based in the town of Livingstone, near the famous Victoria Falls, and the bus visits suburban areas and villages where books and craft supplies are limited and the way of life is very different from that in the UK. It was a real eye-opener and a life-changing experience for me to see the amazing literacy work going on in Zambia despite not always having access to resources which we take for granted in the UK. It certainly made me think about what is essential in life, and the importance of resilience, flexibility, innovation, creativity and problem solving skills (qualities which the local librarians and project team have in abundance). It was also a real contrast to my current role as Digital Skills Trainer, training Renfrewshire Libraries staff on ebooks, tablets and digital technologies.
The average day of a Book Bus volunteer starts at 6am with a quick breakfast in the campsite before heading out on the bus to the schools in the various communities and villages. The arrival of the bus in a community is a real event, and I will never forget the smiling faces of the children as they saw the bus arrive in their village. It is one of the happiest things I have ever witnessed.
Volunteers work with mainly primary school-age children for an hour or two at a time, usually doing two sessions in a morning before going back to camp in the afternoon to prepare the next day’s lesson. Evenings and weekends are free for downtime or other leisure activities (there are plenty of these in the Livingstone area).
The average Book Bus session starts with some games, songs and warm up activities before reading the story, introducing key words and new vocabulary and helping students practice their English. The sessions finish with some kind of activity such as a craft or a game related to the book which has been studied. For example, in one of the sessions we used the book “We’re Going on a Lion Hunt” (a retelling of the well-known “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt”). We read the book along with the children, spoke about the language in the book and then made lion’s mane collages using tissue paper. The children enjoyed reading the story and the end results of the craft were fantastic. The children worked really well as a team to produce a beautiful poster for display in the school library which was built by the Book Bus Foundation a few years ago.
During my time in Zambia, I visited 3 schools, 2 of which have libraries built by the charity. I was also privileged to share my experience of libraries in the UK with the Book Bus library staff and to encourage them in the fantastic work they are doing with the children. The Book Bus libraries themselves are gorgeous and I learned so much from my Zambian colleagues in terms of what can be achieved with very few resources.
Finally, I got to visit the local council library in Livingstone town and also to introduce the Book Bus project team to the literacy work being done in Renfrewshire Libraries.
There are many moments from my Book Bus journey which I will never forget – the children singing goodbye to me on the last day, seeing a giraffe at the side of the road, learning to wear the local dress chitenge, cooking mince and tatties on a camp stove, visiting the stunning Victoria Falls. But mostly I’ll remember the smiling faces of the children and their enthusiasm for reading, and my colleagues, the amazing work they are doing to change lives in Zambia, and the fact that we had so much in common despite cultural differences. It turns out that it doesn’t really matter where you go in the world – everyone loves a good book and has the right to read!
By Christine Glasgow, Digital Skills Trainer