A Journey in the Book Bus, Zambia

School librarian Carol Williams joined the Book Bus in Zambia to help bring books, stories and reading to school children in the region. Here, she tells us about her Book Bus adventure.

Carol writes, 'Sitting in the back of an open-sided converted safari truck, blown around by the wind, watching the Zambian street life as we passed, waved at and called to by enthusiastic children and parents - it felt a bit like being a celeb at times, but could only be the Book Bus! This was my African adventure, a few weeks this summer volunteering with this small but active and high-achieving charity.

I had heard about the Book Bus several years ago, but having recently retired, now was the time to get up and go. The Book Bus works in Zambia, Malawi and Ecuador, using converted buses, decorated with Roald Dahl characters, to take books and volunteers to schools. The aim is -to improve child literacy rates in by providing children with books and the inspiration to read them-, and volunteers, working alongside the local staff, are part of making this happen. I felt that my skills from years as a school librarian would be a good fit.

So, I packed my bags (taking some books and resources I had fund-raised for) and flew to Livingstone in Zambia, near Victoria Falls. The volunteer scheme ran for eight weeks this summer, with usually eight volunteers at a time. We were staying at the Waterfront Campsite, where the Book Bus had its own area with safari style tents. Our 'leader' was Bwalya, one of the Zambian staff we worked with, and she was an inspiration; calm and efficient, always there, coping with anything that needed sorting without fuss, but with a wicked sense of humour. She also runs the Book Bus project at Kitwe in the Zambian Copperbelt.

On a typical day we would be up early for breakfast at 7am, and travel in the bus to start work in school at 9am, running two sessions with groups of children. The school might be in a suburb of Livingstone, or more rural, in which case we might pass zebra, elephants and impala en route. 72 languages are spoken in Zambia, but English is the key to getting on, so we used mostly picture books in English, with one of our Zambian team to translate when necessary.

We would read to the group, get them reading, then run an activity that involved them looking at the text, followed by a craft activity - the children love taking home something they have made, whether it was a patchwork Elmer, a lion mask, or a dancing giraffe. I had to get quite creative quite quickly - not my natural talent maybe, but as volunteers we all learnt from each other, and I often surprised myself!

The afternoons were generally for preparation, which meant choosing a suitable book and thinking up ideas to use with it. This was where teamwork came into its own. The preparation of materials was old-school: we hand-copied worksheets, drew anything we needed, and cut out lots and lots of whatever craft activity we planned. No computer, and photocopying only if absolutely necessary. Quantities varied - my last two weeks were in the school holidays, so group sizes were unpredictable, with groups of up to 50 kids in one school!

We also visited local libraries two afternoons a week, to offer one-to-one reading sessions. At Zwelopili, a small school in a deprived area of town, this involved queues of 100 or more excited children waiting their turn. This school has no water or electricity, and just one classroom. There's also the Reading Room, a library which the Book Bus helped build and set up, now run by two amazing local volunteers, who keep it looking smart and welcoming, organise reading sessions, and lend books to children. It is a resource for the whole community: while we were there, a group of women arrived to do some studying.

The Book Bus was founded 11 years ago by publishing legend Tom Maschler. He had published many famous authors, and brought together Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake; on retirement he decided to do something to take literacy to those who had limited opportunities. "I began to think about all the children who'd never had the opportunity to hold a book, to look at beautiful illustrations and never had the chance to learn how to read. I began to think about all the lost opportunities that would mean for these children. I knew this was the time for me to do something."

The Book Bus is now running their 'I am a Reader' programme, with a three-year pilot study in Malawi. The aim is to monitor and measure reading progress, and in Malawi there are 400 children involved, for three years, tested at the start and end of each school year. The local Book Bus team run literacy support classes in two schools twice a week with the same group of children, focussing on reading, writing and comprehension.

The results have been incredible: in Year 3 (equivalent to KS1) children's reading ability has increased, on average, by 36% whilst in Year 4 it has increased by 31%. The programme has attracted funding to start in Zambia this school year, with 20 schools in Kitwe involved.

My lasting impressions from the trip are all to do with the people. Inspirational adults have set up and run schools in deprived areas, getting money to improve them from wherever they can. Enthusiastic children keen to learn are a bit of a cliche, but it was true. At schools it was sometimes chaotic, but there were no 'discipline' issues, and given something to do, they would put their all into the work they did.

The Book Bus is obviously well respected, and making a real impact. Schools looking for a reading related charity to support need look no further, and staff in schools make ideal Book Bus volunteers, with the possibility of using two weeks summer holiday to volunteer.

If you think you are a potential Book Bus volunteer, or would like to fundraise or donate to support their work, find out more, below.'

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11/12/2017A Journey in the Book Bus, Zambia
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