Wheeling along to im­prove ed­u­ca­tion in Zam­bia

MAK­ING A DIF­FER­ENCE

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - CARO­LINE HEN­SHAW

CLOUDS of dust swirl through the win­dows as we bounce down the dirt­track road. Tiny faces grin up at me as they race be­side the an­cient sa­fari ve­hi­cle turned mo­bile li­brary.

Over the thump of shift­ing piles of books I can hear chil­dren’s voices start to crescendo as they take up the chant of ‘‘Book Bus, Book Bus, just one book!’’

To­day is my first day on the Book Bus, a lit­er­acy char­ity founded by Tom Maschler, cre­ator of the Booker Prize. Five other vol­un­teers and I, along with pro­ject leader Kelly, are slowly mak­ing our way to Twabuka Pri­mary School, near Liv­ing­stone in Zam­bia, to share our love of read­ing with th­ese ea­ger young­sters.

Liv­ing­stone was cho­sen for the Book Bus’s first pro­ject in 2008 (it now op­er­ates in In­dia, Ecuador and Malawi as well) and it’s easy to see why. While for­mer Bri­tish colony Zam­bia has avoided the wars that have rav­aged neigh­bour­ing Zimbabwe and Mozam­bique, it re­mains one of the world’s poor­est coun­tries; its schools are over­crowded and un­der­funded.

And the HIV epi­demic that af­fects al­most one-fifth of the pop­u­la­tion is threat­en­ing to over­whelm its fee­ble so­cial sup­port sys­tem.

For vol­un­teers, there is also the draw of Zam­bia’s stun­ning scenery. Liv­ing­stone’s prox­im­ity to Vic­to­ria Falls, the sur­round­ing national park and the Zambezi River. The newer Mfuwe Book Bus camp sits on the doorstep to the 9000sq km South Luangwa national park, where vol­un­teers can take all man­ner of sa­faris and ex­pect nightly vis­its from ele­phants, hip­pos and mon­keys.

The Book Bus’s aim, as Kelly ex­plains over a drink back at our camp near Liv­ing­stone’s cen­tre, is to comp- le­ment school lessons with one-toone teach­ing, sto­ry­telling and crafts. Ev­ery day vol­un­teers visit a dif­fer­ent pri­mary or preschool in the city and sur­round­ing vil­lages to teach a mix­ture of group and in­di­vid­ual lessons.

Many are com­mu­nity schools run by un­paid lo­cals; all are gasp­ing for books and ba­sic ma­te­ri­als such as pa­per and coloured pen­cils.

Our first visit is to Twabuka, which means dawn in the lo­cal Tonga lan­guage. It’s a typ­i­cal Zam­bian pri­mary school, with about 220 stu­dents in classes of up to 40. Stu­dents range be­tween seven and 20, though ages can vary hugely within year groups as many are forced to drop out to sup­port their fam­i­lies.

A free food pro­gram has boosted at­ten­dance re­cently but be­cause it re­lies on spo­radic do­na­tions from lo­cal lodges it’s un­likely to last long.

I have lit­tle teach­ing ex­pe­ri­ence so the prospect of en­ter­tain­ing two groups of 12 teenagers for three hours is daunt­ing. But soon I am singing, clap­ping and gig­gling as their smiles light up the sparse class­room. Once a box of se­quins makes an ap­pear­ance chaos breaks loose and be­fore long we are pranc­ing around adorned with sparkles like disco-danc­ing war­riors.

The projects at­tract a wide ar­ray of peo­ple, from stu­dents to re­tirees. Most are na­tive English speak­ers (Aus­tralians, Brits and Amer­i­cans), al­though I also meet Swiss Ger­mans, Ital­ians and Zam­bian vol­un­teers dur­ing my six weeks on the bus. Many, like Helen, a re­tired teacher from Toowoomba who works with foster chil­dren, are ed­u­ca­tors look­ing to put their skills to use over­seas.

My sec­ond stint in Mfuwe, a newer and less es­tab­lished pro­ject, shows the im­pact the Book Bus can have. Here chil­dren are shyer and their English poorer. For be­yond the books, it seems the char­ity’s great­est gift to th­ese kids is con­fi­dence, some­thing they will need to get ahead in a coun­try where even fin­ish­ing pri­mary school is a chal­lenge for many.

the­book­bus.org

The Book Bus, staffed by vol­un­teers and greeted en­thu­si­as­ti­cally by young read­ers

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