Friday, 16 September 2011

My time on the Book Bus in Zambia by Barbara Egglesfield

Gosh! Where to start? It was such a wonderful, rewarding experience. 

Camping in tents in a secure site (Grubby’s Grotto!) 15 minutes taxi ride from Victoria Falls, I met just two other volunteers on my first week (normally there should be 8) so we were under strength. But as the schools had just returned from their 4-week break, not all the pupils had arrived back: many would have been staying with relatives.

With Sunday to recover from the long flight via Johannesburg, and Monday to prepare a few classes and sort out the bus, we went to Nakatindi Basic School on Tuesday as the schools had used their first day back to clean the classrooms. My first class was a Grade 4 group (age range 11-12) and, after introductions, we read Handa’s Surprise, discussed it and played a game I had prepared. I was relieved to find the children to be pretty responsive and friendly. Nakatindi is one of the poorest schools in the area, receiving no grants from the government, and has recently had a water pump installed for school and village use. 

1 in 5 children in Zambia have HIV/AIDS but this was far from my mind when I was with them. All the children I met in the 5 schools seemed so eager to learn, so full of laughter, never ‘bored’ or inattentive, even though under-nourished and often without parents. They would ask for a pencil, or even a clean sheet of paper, and to have given it would have delighted them (and me) beyond measure. But we were warned not to give anything as everyone would want the same, and other children may have taken their gifts away. (However, several pencils did discreetly manage to find their way to the children!). I also found it sad that living so near to one of the 10 natural wonders of the world, so few of the children had even seen Victoria Falls.

Each morning followed the same pattern: breakfast at 7.00, an hour on the bus to prepare, arrive at a school for 9.00 - the children started at 7.30; the teachers brought us classes of 30-ish to divide between us. We rarely knew in advance what grades or ages we would be getting, so had to have a plan for any from Grade 4 up to Grade 7 (16 and 17 year-olds). Usually we had three or four groups for an hour each, and then other children would gather round in their break times and we would let them read the books too. We sat outside on rush mats, in temperatures of up to 40C, finding shade where we could - under cool leafy mango trees at Dambwa School. Anytime after 1.00, we returned to the campsite, fairly exhausted, and ready for a refreshing shower, a salad sandwich lunch and maybe dabble our feet in the pool.

Travelling in the spectacular bus is a very public affair - it has to go so slowly that people on foot overtake us, to shouts of ’m’zungus!’ (white people) and much waving.

The Bus is stocked with books for all ages and abilities (however, the abilities are far below what we would expect in England) as well as lots of paper, pencils, crayons, glue, coloured paper, art materials, including the ever-popular glitter. Depending on class sizes, we took a selection of all these - although the activities worked better with smaller groups of up to six - and we usually read/discussed for 30-40 minutes and then did drawing sessions. I found most of the children were quite good at copying single pictures, but not at all used to drawing a complete picture or scene, using their imagination. 

We visited Limbala School on Wednesday - very little shade, some disruptive boys but some very responsive girls. Good - as I had begun to feel that perhaps teaching was not my forte!

By Thursday I’d improved my technique and felt the lessons went better at Linda Basic Community School which had a better reading ability all-round and quite lively pupils - they were used to having visits from the Bus.
In the afternoon we visited the Lubasi Home orphanage where they try to involve all the children in their own care; the older ones care for the younger ones and are encouraged to live independently as they get older. Sister Brigitte told us they are currently raising cash for a new building to house the oldest girls.

Some schools we had to visit by taxi, the Bus not being able to get down the dirt roads, as we did each Friday, going to Cowboy Cliff’s pre-School for 3-6 year-olds. I was very impressed with this lovely school: it was started in 2003 and funded entirely by one man and his bike-hire enterprise - originally to educate his own two children and then three neighbours’ after his wife died of AIDS. Now he has 100 children in the school and 50 bikes for hire. 
There are 3 classrooms - each class sang us a song, and we of course had to reciprocate. The staff are really caring and it was the only school where I saw a desk and a chair for every child. There was food, too, prepared by the mothers, and cooked outside using solar power – fascinating!

On Saturday, our numbers were swelled by the arrival of 3 more volunteers which meant that we would then have smaller groups and could do more intensive activities like making butterflies and stars, decorating with glitter, cutting out fish shapes, etc., and on Sunday we again planned the following week’s work.

In our ‘off-duty’ time we had the opportunity to indulge in some of the tourist pursuits: white water rafting (some of the best in the world, ‘though not for me!) bunjie jumping over the Falls, etc. but I opted for watching the lunar rainbow over the Falls at full moon (sadly it proved too cloudy), an elephant-back safari, walking with lions, and a horseback ride along the cooling Zambezi where we found a 6-month-old giraffe and her mother, and some zebra. All these were amazing!

Although we were self-catering, we occasionally ate at the local restaurants which were reasonably priced and once sampled the famous afternoon tea and cocktails at the Royal Livingstone Hotel just to watch the glorious sunset over the Zambezi.

And so the Book Bus goes from strength to strength and now visits Malawi and Ecuador.