Riding the Book Bus to Zambia

Jackie Rice, JCoSS LRC Manager spent two and a half weeks of the summer holiday in Zambia, Southern Africa, volunteering with a charity called The Book Bus. This is a review of her experiences.

During the summer break I spent two and a half weeks with The Book Bus charity in Livingstone, Zambia. I first heard about The Book Bus a few years ago when reading a report from one of the volunteers. The report explained how volunteers travel to Zambia to take part in a literacy project, driving out every day on Book Bus Charlie to schools in rural areas. Elephants and giraffes can be seen from the bus on the way to the schools. Combining a literacy project and an adventure – I knew that I wanted, if possible, to join the team on that bus!

 This year my plan was realised. An exhilarating and life-changing trip was about to begin. Travelling with a fellow Barnet librarian, we flew via Johannesburg and on to Livingstone. Our suitcases, safely stashed in the hold, were bursting with books and craft materials. We were met by members of The Book Bus Zambia team and settled into our accommodation.

During the holiday programme which runs in Livingstone from June to September, international volunteers join the Zambian team.  The team works with teachers to introduce books in English to children aged from 3-16 years of age – some older children are still completing their primary level. We would travel to rural primary schools, share books and stories and literacy-related activities such as singing, arts and crafts and playing games. The programme aims to make reading books a fun and enjoyable activity.  The children were always excited by the arrival of the bus and books. Some children will walk or run 15 miles each way to reach school.

Twice a week we also visited a Book Bus supported library where we could read one to one with the children and sing songs. Again, the children were filled with joy and delight to see the bus arriving. The volunteers are accepted as part of The Book Bus community and greeted warmly.  In contrast the library had few shelves and a small number of very well read books.  On returning to our accommodation we prepared for the next day’s classes, choosing the books, songs and craft activities. Sometimes we experienced a power or water cut as the government regulated scarce resources.

Why Zambia?

Zambia is one of the poorest nations in the world with more than half of the population living below the poverty line. Over half of the population are under 18 years of age, and most people live in rural areas. Although there are over 75 local languages, English is Zambia’s official language – learning to speak and read in English massively increases a child’s life chances. However, most children do not complete their primary level education.

Tom Maschler, a publisher in the UK, travelled to Zambia in 2006 and saw first hand the scarcity of books in remote areas. Teachers and community leaders welcomed the idea of a Book Bus. In 2008, the first Book Bus, with 5000 books on board, left London for Zambia. The bus was beautifully decorated with illustrations by Sir Quentin Blake. Since then staff at The Book Bus have built relationships with school teachers in communities which have very few books or resources. These are all provided for the programme by The Book Bus.

The harsh reality of life in Zambia was brought home to us as we visited a traditional village beside one of the schools we were working with. The riverbed was dry as the rains had failed. The villagers could therefore not grow their crops which they rely on to sell at market. They had to pay for fuel to work the pump to raise the water they need from deep in the ground. Only 17 miles away, back at our accommodation in Livingstone, the grounds were being watered daily to look attractive.

The Book Bus programme has been extremely successful so far. The UK based charity now operates all year round in Malawi, Zambia and Ecuador and has five buses. Since 2008 the charity has worked with over 200 schools, reaching 100,000 children. Literacy programmes are being expanded and reading levels and school attendances have improved.

Zambia is a beautiful country and volunteers have the opportunity to visit the Victoria Falls, the greatest curtain of falling water in the world, and see the sunset on the Zambezi River. You can also see stunning wildlife by taking a local trip see rhinos, elephants and giraffes or simply by looking out of the window of the bus each day. Highlights of the trip for me: meeting and becoming friends with the Zambian team – such gracious, dedicated and kind people; making a positive contribution to literacy in Zambia in such an enjoyable way; getting to know the children and being greeted with such joy as the Book Bus arrives; seeing three elephants take turns to swim across a river; swimming in the Devil’s Pool at the top of the Victoria Falls; spotting two giraffes standing on a roundabout. This was an unforgettable experience and one I will always treasure.

Does this sound like a project you would like to get involved with? I would recommend the experience to anyone of any age. For further information about The Book Bus, to volunteer in Zambia, or donate go to www.thebookbus.org

Contact me if you require any further encouragement to volunteer.

Jackie Rice  September 2019