Hello Zambia!

A long flight via Dubai to Lusaka. There, a nice young man from the travel company welcomed us, took our passports and money and disappeared.
Should we be worried?
But soon he reappeared with visas and ushered us ahead of the line-up. Picked up our bags in the hall full of busy African people and white visitors with suitcases.
Then we re-checked them, changed some US dollars to Zambian kwachas and waited for our next flight. Walking over the hot tarmac, seeing red dust and corrugated tin roofs – we knew we had arrived in Africa. Finally.
When Kees and I first dated, many many years ago, he had a map of Africa on the wall and we dreamed of the places we would visit and explore. It took so long to make this dream reality.
Our next flight takes us from Lusaka to Livingstone in the south western corner of Zambia. We are basically on the border with Zimbabwe. Livingstone is a small city.
We are here to work as volunteers with The Book Bus (www.bookbus.org)  staying in a compound with a large house and a primitive swimming pool – but it’s great for cooling down on a hot day. We slept in a tent – a regular large tent. It’s all very dusty and dry. We eat at a picnic table under a stone roof and cook meals outside at the picnic table. Livingstone isn’t very big. Today we drove down the main road. It has all sorts of shops – shoe stores, banks, phone shops, supermarkets. But just a few blocks away, people live in small houses and don’t have cars. They have no money to shop here. There are markets in other parts of town. If you can’t buy a large bag of sugar, you buy a tiny bag. So the stall owners measure sugar and flour and spices in bags of all sizes.
There is 70% unemployment here so many people just walking around on the streets. The women wear long colorful skirts, often with a matching headband. On top of their heads they carry their wares: huge bins of carrots or a crate of 24 bottles of soft drinks, a 2 meter long metal tube or a mattress. It’s amazing to see the things they carry on their heads.
Babies are tied to the mothers’ backs in a colorful cotton shawl. They just lay the baby on their back, bend over, wrap the cloth around the baby and tie it at the shoulder. I’d be scared to drop the child but when they stand up – the child is securely strapped to their back.
We stopped at a traffic light and Kelly told us “This is a brand new traffic light, the first in Livingstone.” She said, “When it was first installed, they held a ceremony by building a grandstand at the intersection and dedicating the traffic light.”
“Then,” she said, “people from outside of town would come in and just sit at the intersection to watch the light change colours, because they had never seen a traffic light.”
We walked across the local market as the only white people there. You can buy used shoes or plastic buckets, dried fish, corn, tires, everything at the market. We bought glorious African cotton and a long dress for me.
The Book Bus
Volunteering with The Book Bus, a UK based charity, is an incredible experience. Its success relies heavily on the one young woman who runs it here. Kelly is multi talented and accepted and loved by many Zambians. After six years here, she even speaks the local language. She capably runs the book bus. It is a huge old Safari vehicle with seats and open sides. The back and side walls have book shelves along the lengths. Together with volunteers who come from around the world, she visits local schools and community centers to introduce reading and books to the children. As soon as they spot the bus, the children come running with huge grins on their faces. Without any shyness, they come up to us and cuddle up for a book.
The older children are learning to read, all at different stages of their lives depending on how long they have been at school. They read along to learn the words. You can tell that they are used to chanting along with a teacher. Even the older students are very, very keen on any activity. A 14 year old sat quietly coloring – an activity that Kindergartens in North America might do. Her name is Abigail Nakawala and she is in Grade 5. She just started school last year and used to stay at home helping her parents. When she started school she couldn’t even write her name. Abigail was asked what she thinks of the library. She says “It is a great place because even if you can’t read, it makes it attractive and makes you want to read. Her favourite book: is Tarzan, because “Tarzan has a good heart and he helps people”. The story helps her learn how to help people. When she finishes reading Tarzan she will get to know another book so she can learn a lot. Abigail wants to be a teacher because she wants to help others learn what she is learning at school. She doesn’t want anyone to miss what she has missed before.
A very funny story about the book: Kelly took the bus and parked it somewhere. She closed the canvas walls but when she came back, the taxi drivers all called “Kelly! There are baboons on the book bus!” Seven baboons had broken in and stolen bottles of Fanta….
When we arrive with the Book Bus, children come running from everywhere – alleys and homes – they all run and follow the book bus to the community centre, which is a small 3 room hut made of plastered walls and a corrugated tin roof. Red dust flies everywhere.
Kelly recently had a new classroom added – beautiful painted in bright blue. She even had someone pay for new desks. The children were so excited to have desks to sit in, they stayed and waited all day, refusing to go home before the desks arrived.
I read my book Emma and introduced them to my chicken puppet. Their eyes popped out when they saw Emma moving. When an African child smiles, it is like the sun breaks through – brilliant and shiny. Then we read a butterfly story, did some counting songs and made paper butterflies. You can tell that a visit from the book bus, is the highlight of the day for these children.
For more details on the Book Bus, and to find out where else it operates, see:
The First Visit Ever to Victoria Falls

Today we picked up 25 children at the community centre, in the Book Bus and took them on a field trip of their lifetime. These children live 10 KM from Victoria Falls but most have never seen it.At the city center there are cars and concrete buildings. But the further you go away from the center, the fewer cars you see and the houses make way for huts. Some places seem to hang together of poles and pieces of plastic. Garbage bags make roofs. Feed bags make walls. Everything is red dust and even this gets swept in the morning. The houses don’t have any running water. The children who live here have probably never been to the city center, a 20 minute walk away.

As the bus reached the pavement of the main road, a cheer went up. Many had never been that far from home or ever left their area. They had showed up in their Sunday best clothes and in shoes. None of the other children wore shoes so this was a special occasion. However, as Kelly told us, the choices here are to buy either used clothes from Europe (which are shipped here as donated clothes from African children, but they have to buy them), or Chinese stuff which doesn’t last long. Most kids have used things, and I don’t think I saw one pair of whole shoes. A teacher wore two different kind of flip-flops; one kid had a broken flipflop which had been fixed with wire underneath but kept breaking. Some kids walked all day on shoes that didn’t fit and came off with every step… But they were clean, and proud.
They sang loudly and grinned as they received a bottle of water and a package of biscuits.
When we reached the Fall (our non-resident entrance ticket cost more than all of the local children combined!) we walked down the path to see different parts of the falls. Not much water in it this time of year. During the rainy season the Falls are over 1.5 KM wide and thundering. Their Zambian name is much nicer than ‘Victoria’ falls: Mosi-oa-Tunya meaning thundering clouds. But even now there were impressive parts, with rainbows in the spray and green puddles at the deep, deep bottom.
The children clung to our hands, sometimes I had three kids hanging on to my arms because they were scared of the heights. They were so excited. If Kelly said “wait here,” they waited. No one ever misbehaved or strayed too far. They marveled at the Falls and loved walking across the bridge into Zimbabwe. We yelled “Goodbye Zambia, hello Zimbabwe!” as we crossed the dividing line and back. Then we ate ice cream, a rare treat for these kids.

But the highlight of the day was when we found a clear pool of river water, left behind from when the river is higher. With a sandy bottom it made a perfect splashing pool. At first they cautiously tiptoed in the cool water, splashing their hands and faces. But when Kelly said it was OK, they stripped off their shirts and dove in – many with clothes and all. These children have no running water at home and to see them enjoy this pool was pure joy. With huge wide grins on their faces, they jumped and thrashed and rolled in the water. We wrung out shirts and they flapped dry in the wind as we walked on. To see these kids frolic in the water is something I won’t easily forget: it was happiness personified.

When we arrived, the kids spotted a zebra and apparently a giraffe – I didn’t see the giraffe. But there were tons of baboons, many with babies. And, knowing they might steal things from the bus, we lashed it securely closed before we left. But even so, with one of us still on the bus, one baboon snuck in quietly behind us and took off with a bag full of biscuits… the monkey! The kids thought it was hilarious.
On the way home the children sang loudly, making people along the road laugh and wave. They sang a song something like this: “I am so happy today, because…” and then they took turns filling in the blanks: “.. because I had ice cream, because I saw Victoria Falls, because I swam in water, and… because the baboons stole the biscuits!”
They laughed so hard!
When we get back, they climb off the bus hugging close the water bottle and biscuits we gave them. Most kids didn’t eat them. Take bring them home to share with their family.

Mongolia – Into the Gobi with Books

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

    As a writer of children’s books, I often conduct author visits to International Schools. In 2010 I spent a week each in South Korea, Malaysia and Singapore, followed by a visit to the International School of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Students there had knitted warm scarves for nomad children living in the Gobi Desert. I took these, along with many books, on my adventure into the Gobi.  
Many years ago I had ‘met’ Dashdondog, a Mongolian children’s author. He helped me with the research for my book My Librarian is a Camel, an account of how children around the world get library books if they don’t have access to library buildings. Dashdondog shared stories and photos with me of his mobile library in the Gobi. He visits nomad families in gers (pronounced as in ‘Gary’; yurt is the Russian word for these nomadic tents) as well as schools in remote villages. He performs his poems, sings songs, reads books and leaves behind many volumes for the children.

Until I arrived in Mongolia I had no idea of how famous he is in his country. Take Robert Munsch, Pierre Berton and Raffi and roll them into one. Then you will get close to the popularity of Dashdondog. I discovered that every child, and indeed every adult, in Mongolia can instantly recite his poetry and sing the songs he composed. Many of them don’t even realize that these are texts that he wrote, they know them as their own national treasures. I don’t speak a word of Mongolian and Dashdondog does not speak much English.   But when he performed a poem about horses galloping across the steppe, I could picture what he was saying. I could just imagine their hooves and the dust.
Dashdondog graciously invited my husband and I to stay with him in Ulaanbaatar, the capital city of Mongolia. The walls of his living room are hung with photos of IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People) friends from around the world: Astrid Lindgren, Katherine Paterson, Uri Orlev and many others. Before leaving for the Gobi, we roamed the streets of Ulaanbaatar, walked in and out of many shops and sampled local foods. There was still snow, melting in shaded piles among the buildings. Sidewalks had treacherous holes or manhole covers missing. Many buildings had long cracks in their concrete walls. It was obvious that the Soviet regime had not spent much money on the upkeep before they left Mongolia to its own resources.

Dashdondog arranged for a trip into the Gobi to bring books to children. For 12 hours we traveled by train and then continued for 12 more hours in a van, following sand tracks with no visible landmarks, deep into the desert. Occasionally we came upon a lonely white ger. We would stop to hand out scarves, books and candy for the children who lived here. In return they served us tea with camel milk, fed us dried camel milk cheese curds and let us ride their camels.
When we reached our destination, Khovsgols Soum, a forlorn windblown town bobbing on a sand ocean, we visited the local school and shared books with children.   They were incredibly keen. Mongolia may not be wealthy by western standards but has a 95% literacy rate. From Kindergartners to high school students, they all were polite, attentive and eager hear stories. I always bring Emma long, a chicken puppet based on my Emma’s Eggs books. Here too, children loved the chicken and were delighted to chant “tok-tok-tok!”, wondering if she might be a real chicken! Many of the children lived in homes, since their families were nomadic and moved far away from the school locations.

We spent nights in different locations, including cots in the make shift hostel of a village administrative office. The outhouse was a long, cold walk across the barren, windblown desert.
We struggled with Mongolian food: it is similar to Canada’s Inuit diet: high in animal fat and void of vegetables and fruits. For breakfast we were served a large, communal bowl of meat in broth and salted tea. By lunch time the broth had jelled but we still ate the meat. At night, more meat was added to the broth.

During one of our days in the Gobi, we experienced a national holiday. Horse races were held, with children as young as 4 and 5 years old riding bareback across the hard packed sand. We were treated to horsehead fiddle music and presented with warm mare’s milk, and a tray of sugar cubes and cheese curds.

We left books with children in schools, in tents and on trains. Most of these books are paid for by Dashdondog himself. Through grants from Japan and thanks to being awarded the 2006 Asahi Reading Award for his innovative mobile library, this Mongolian Hans Christian Andersen is able to, single-handedly, put books in the hands of many appreciative children. As we left the Gobi to return to a more populated world, I listened to the haunting sounds of our new Mongolian friends as they sang folk songs. Seated on bags of camel wool, we drove back across the bumpy desert, secure in the knowledge that stories and books make the best of friends.

Volunteer Work in Mexico

Where are we off to next?

Paamul, Mexico!
For some relaxation, diving, snorkeling, reading, eating, playing on the beach and seeing some Mayan ruins!

Right now we are sorting clothes that we won’t need to bring back. We will leave clothing, shoes, books etc. for a small Mayan village where everything can be put to good use. During my last visit there, I even left my suitcase behind. A very pregnant mom claimed it to serve as crib for her baby. It works well both ways – leave behind what you don’t need but what others can still use; and you won’t have any luggage to check for the return trip.

We are also taking pencils, sharpeners, Spanish books, paper etc. We will visit a library project that friends have started. Over the past several years they have fundraised and worked hard to build a library for a Mayan school. Now they are working toward a preschool. Check out their volunteer work here: http://www.booksformayans.org/