Via The Hindu
“You know,” said Tom Maschler, “I think this might be even more satisfying than the Booker.” I had met up with the legendary publisher and founder of the Booker Prize in London to talk about his latest venture, the Book Bus, a community tourism project in which a unique mobile library staffed by volunteers tours impoverished community primary schools in the Livingstone area of Zambia, distributing books.
A few weeks later, as I stood in a muddy playground, surrounded by a delighted swarm of children all desperate to read, I understood what he meant.
If any country needs this support, it’s Zambia. Despite its relative stability, it remains one of the world’s poorest countries and has been decimated by HIV/AIDS, with one in six adults affected. Its schools are under-funded and overcrowded, and books are in short supply. In addition, English is widely spoken (currently, most books donated to the project are in English). In 2006, Maschler spent a month touring schools, hospitals and orphanages in Lusaka and Livingstone, scouting for suitable locations. His proposition was welcomed with open arms by the Zambian authorities. After enlisting the help of illustrator Quentin Blake, who painted the bus in his distinctive style, of publishing contacts who donated books, friends who donated money, and gap-year company VentureCo, which runs the volunteer programme, the bus — a 30-year-old Leyland Tiger — was finally shipped to Zambia in early 2008.
Livingstone was chosen as Book Bus’s base because of its proximity to Victoria Falls, Mosi-oa-Tunya national park and the Zambezi river, in the hope it would entice volunteers to join the project for a period of between two weeks and three months, combining their work with sightseeing.
I was met at Livingstone airport by Jo Payne — the project’s redoubtable team leader — Azwell, the bus driver, and my co-volunteers — Jean, a retired teacher from Richmond, Phoebe, a 19-year-old student on her way to a Tanzanian orphanage, and Marjorie, a French-Canadian librarian, en route to establish an orphanage library in Lusaka.
We would be spending each weekday at a different primary school. The schools had been set up by communities that couldn’t afford the government school charges, but are under-resourced, the teachers often unpaid. The next day we boarded the bus for our first school visit. Most of the seats had been replaced by shelves bending under the weight of books and paper, and crates stuffed with pencils and crayons, glue and glitter. Leaving the centre’s tarmac roads, we spent half an hour bumping along dusty, potholed tracks, attracting waves from villagers, before pulling into Nakatindi school playground, where the bus nearly sank into the rain-sodden earth.
Nakatindi is a typical run-down rural township. The school has around 350 students aged between seven and 12, more than 50 per cent of whom have lost one or both parents. In a spartan classroom, Rose, a government-sponsored teacher, told us that there can be as many as 50 students in each class.
The schools had little access to books before the Book Bus began last year, and standards of literacy vary wildly. The aim of the bus isn’t to replace lessons, but to work in partnership with the teachers on storytelling, one-to-one reading, drama and art. We each took a group from a class of enthusiastic and inquisitive 12-year-olds, inviting them on to the bus to choose a book. A few minutes later, I’d found a shady spot and my group began to read Roald Dahl’s The BFG. Later, I sat drawing with a group of seven-year-olds in the playground.