Wheeling along to improve education in Zambia
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
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.
The Book Bus, staffed by volunteers and greeted enthusiastically by young readers