Pangani = Paradise

After working for 3 weeks in schools, with hundreds of kids each day, and after bumping around the hot, dusty interior, we had decided that we would conclude our time in Africa with a few days on the beach. Zanzibar had long been on our bucket list. In fact, Zanzibar was on the top of my bucket list, having seen photos of white beaches and aqua marine water. However, the more we read about it, the less attractive it sounded. Busy and crowded with 1.5 million people, a plethora of shops, restaurants, vendors, disco’s, bars…

Our travel agent, Mambulu Safaris, offered an attractive alternative: Pangani. No one I asked about it had ever heard of it. But what we read online sounded just like what we were looking for: white beaches, palm trees and warm water.
Turns out it was a good decision to come here. Pangani is paradise found! There is nothing to do. Which is exactly what we wanted. We are in the lovely The Tides Lodge (http://www.thetideslodge.com/),  a perfect place to relax and enjoy solitude, or for families with children to come to the beach – although at high tide the beach disappears.
Getting here is an adventure in itself: we flew from Arusha to Tanga on a tiny plane, with 6 people on board. After Tanga it was another 20 minute flight to Pangani. To our amazement, the pilot buzzed a dirt strip in the middle of sisal plantations. This told the local kids on their bicycles to get off the air strip. We landed on bumpy dirt and, under one tree, was a car waiting for us. No airport, or anything else.
We have a spacious bungalow with immediate beach access. A king size bed, a large bathroom with a warm shower, lounge chairs outside on our own little patio overlooking the Indian Ocean. I truly feel like I’m in heaven…
The little restaurant serves meals and drinks: seafood straight from the ocean caught by the local fishermen. And piña coladas made from fresh pineapple and coconut.
We are forced to sit and read books all day! An amazing luxury… And if we really need to do something, we can swim in the bathtub-warm Indian Ocean or walk the beach and chat with local fishermen who are hauling in their nets. We watched some of them carve a new boat from a mango tree. Amazing! They hollow out this huge trunk with simple axes and tools. It takes 5 weeks to make a boat this way.
Or we can take a bike or a kayak if we want to do something. We are the only guests, at the end of the season, and revel in peace and quiet for a few days.
There are, however, perils in paradise. The sign in our room reads:
“Sitting under coconut trees can be dangerous. We advise you not to lie under a palm tree as coconuts can cause serious damage, injury and even death.” There are further warnings against sun burn (I know, having turned 50 shades of red and brown), and jelly fish. So far though, we are surviving.
The entire resort, as well as the nearby village, seems to be biodegradable: walls, roofs – everything is made from local wood and braided palm leaves. The rugs, the placemats, the coasters, the soap dishes, even the tissue box covers are made from grasses or coconut wood.
We watch local women walk the beach to gather anything for supper – perhaps some clams washed up in the weeds. They cut fallen palm fonds and stack them into bundles, to carry home on their heads to use for firewood or to fix the roof. Two little school boys walk the beach, on their way home every day. Each one carries a coconut on his head.
The waiter just walked from the restaurant to the beach where some fishermen were fishing. He picked something from the net, walked back and grinned “Calamari for lunch!” It doesn’t get any fresher than that. We’ve had nothing but fresh prawns, snapper and crab for lunch and dinner…
While The Tides Lodge is wonderful, I would check on the condition of the beach before coming next time. The sea is rapidly undermining the shore, eating away at sand and palm trees. We hear the high tide pounding all night and I worry at the rate at which the shore is disappearing.
And now, on the very last day of our amazing time in Africa, the wet season has arrived. Amazing tropical showers pour down once in a while, drenching everything. Time to go home…
The trip home took about 40 hours! We left Pangani, Tanzania in a small bush plane from a dirt runway. Spent many hours at Dar Es Salaam airport, which might just be one of the worst airports in the world. No place to sit, no place to eat… Hot, muggy, ánd a leaking ceiling.

The one good part was the airline agent who checked us in. We decided to splurge on a seat upgrade but – typical – the credit card machine wasn’t working. The agent came to find us later because he felt bad. And gave us the upgrade for free.

Once we got on board, we flew to Amsterdam where we had a hour and a half to board the next plane to the next continent: Seattle, USA.
There we had a hour and a half to make the flight to Victoria, Canada.
We did a lot of security and immigration checks in two days… Take your laptop out, take off your shoes, belt, jacket… Liquids in a ziploc bag… I always wonder who watches those full body scans…
Thanks to religious extremists in the Middle East, I can no longer take my hand lotion on a plane. But then they give you a plastic knife and a steaming piece of rubber meat to cut in a little plastic plate that slides across the plastic tray. Not sure which one is more dangerous… For two days we had unidentifiable veggies, brown things covered in sauce and a square of something. Airline food is a contradiction in terms.
I traveled to Africa with a large suitcase full of children’s books and clothing. I gave the books to Ethiopia Reads, an organization to provides books for children in small local schools. In Ethiopia I gave a bag of clothes to a street woman and the suitcase itself to the cleaning lady in my hotel. Both were thankful beyond words.
In Kenya I took clothes, books, stickers, pencils and some other little things to an orphanage. I also left clothes in my hotel room when I left.
The last clothes and shoes I had with me, I left upon leaving the last hotel: a scarf, a beach towel, a cap, a rain poncho. All of the things I took to Africa were things I was ready to part with. Instead of getting rid of them at home, ad instead of taking my best clothes, I took things I could discard along the way. I took shoes that were still fine to use but I’d had them for years. I took good clothes for my work in schools, but shirts I was ready to part with.
Not only did this make a lot of people very happy along the way. It also meant I had no laundry when I came home. On the return trip I used an expendable nylon bag to carry home my souvenirs! Cabin luggage only and no waiting for checked bags anywhere.
So, now we are back home sharing photos of zebras and lions with Nico and Aidan. And reflecting on our amazing trip of a life time. We are glad we asked Mambulu Safaris to do our bookings for us. Not only did they do a fantastic job finding us the most suitable places to stay, they arranged all of the little details. When you arrive at an airport in Africa, how do you get to your lodge? Do you have to agree on a taxi price before getting in? Do you tip?
We didn’t have to worry about any of that. We were greeted, upon each arrival, by someone with our name on a sign. They took us to the car, helped with luggage and even with getting visas, etc.
Not only that, but upon our first arrival in Tanzania they gave us emergency cards with phone numbers and arrangements to contact Flying Doctors IF we ever needed it. Thanks goodness we never needed it, but it was great to know everything was thought of.
Asanti sana, Mambulu, for a fantastic experience!
Mambulu! Safaris

Creation of Hope – a Kenyan orphanage with Canadian roots

Several years ago, Canadian author Eric Walters had a chance meeting with a woman from Kenya. Ruth and her husband Henry spent some time in Canada but longed to make a difference for people in their home country, Kenya. Eric also longed to make a difference and to connect young people in Canada with those in Africa.
Eric and his wife Anita founded Creation of Hope, an organization to help better the lives of orphans in Kenya. Ruth and Henry offered their land in the high hills of the Mbooni region, outside Nairobi.
Miraculously, things have been falling into place every since their fortunate meeting: people wanted to help, schools and individuals started sponsoring children. Young boys and girls without any family would have likely ended up as street children without any hope in their future. Now these same children have clean clothes, a bed and a regular meals. They attend school and even have the opportunity of university in their future.
Eric works very hard to support the 60 some children in the care of Ruth and her staff. He also encourages schools and anyone interested, to help financially. It is amazing to see how much they have accomplished.
They have been able to build a large multilevel building with dorms for boys and girls, a kitchen, a dining area and bathrooms with running water.
The stove uses bio fuel produced from manure from their own cows!
A huge garden provides healthy food like beans, corn, kale, tomatoes, lots of strawberries and mangoes. They bake their own bread and sell cakes to the community.

Eric has written several beautiful books based on his African adventures. To write his new novel, Walking Home, he actually walked across Kenya with a group of orphans. They crossed the second largest slum area in the world: Kibera. They walked hundreds of kilometers, in Kenyan heat, all the way to the hills of Kikima where the orphanage now looks out over the valleys. When you purchase this novel, $1.30 is donated to Creation of Hope.

In his picture books Hope Springs and My Name is Blessings he shares stories of real children in his care. The first one tells the touching tale of how a well was build to provide water and how the children reached out to the broader community to help a nearby village as well.

The children all attend school. Some are now awaiting exam results in hopes of continuing their education. Some girls are now in university and everyone beams with pride when they talk about their success.

In addition to the children living in the orphanage, they sponsor another 100+ children who live with a friend or relative. These children are given their own goat to get ahead in life, and food is brought regularly. Ruth smiles and says “When people ask how many children I have, most people will say 2 or 3 or 5. I say 160!” And she smiles as proudly as any mother would.

It was a privilege to visit the Walters’ success story in Kenya and to meet the very impressive Ruth who quietly moves mountains. And it was special to meet the kids whose happy grins tell the whole story.
If you would like to support Eric Walters’ Creation of Hope, you can make a donation or even sponsor a child as an ongoing commitment:

Kenya: Mangoes, Roses and a Black Mzungu

Before I came to Nairobi, I pictured it as flat, yellow, dry and a huge city. It is a big city of over 3 million people. Yet parts of it are beautifully hilly, lush and green.

All week I have stayed in a cute little cottage, among huge palm leaves and bright bougainvilleas. Birds twitter and sing in the green leaves.
Last weekend I visited elephants and giraffes. I went to amazing craft places with baskets, weaving, masks, and necklaces. It is hard not to go home with a suitcase full of gorgeous Kenyan art. You can buy huge masks with beadwork, 2 meter tall carved giraffes, tablecloths and blankets of red Maasai and Kente cloth.
All week I got picked up early by ‘my driver’ who took me to school and who then sat studying for his next guide exam while I spoke to hundreds of kids at the international schools. Kids from England, Japan, Spain, Holland, Canada, and many more countries around the world. There was a lot of excitement about my books, about writing their own stories and about books in general. Wonderful librarians stimulate these kids who have a well stocked library at their fingertips.
During the week we ate dinners at lovely places: a large patio in a green forest, in the garden of the principal surrounding by candles, and in many other interesting places.
It’s been warm: 30, 32ºC but often with a nice breeze and it’s a dry heat right now. People are looking forward to the rains, which will rinse off the red dust and bring new flowers. But I’m kind of glad not to have rain while I’m here….
The center of Nairobi is crowded with modern buildings and sidewalks full of people of all races and backgrounds. I’ve never seen traffic like here. Completely clogged roundabouts, 4 lanes of cars completely tied into a knot. Apparently all the traffic lights work but no one looks at them. There’s a policeman at every roundabout directing traffic, regardless of what the lights say… If cars had elbows, that what you use here. You just push ahead, whether space allows it or not.
But my favorite is to drive along the streets with tiny little shops leaning against each other. Corrugated tin forms the walls or roofs, rough wood keeps it all together. A rusty sign announces the ‘Meddle Some Beauty Parlor’ or the ‘Banana Hill Hardware Shop’ – which looks like it is in dire need of hardware. Plastic chairs outside for shopkeepers or customers… A wash basin is used by a barber. Goats, babies, bales of fabric – all crowded onto the city sidewalks while overloaded buses and motorbikes and cars push past. A woman cuts sugar cane, someone is roasting corn. I love the women with broad smiles, swaying hips and long, brightly coloured skirts. Many have headscarves wound around their hair or carry babies in a cloth on their back. Others carry a basket of carrots or tomatoes in their head.
Today I saw women and children washing clothes in a pond, drying them on the grass. I ate the biggest juiciest mangoes you can imagine and I bought an armload of roses for my hosts: 20 fresh, longtime roses for 2 dollars!
This, I think, is Africa.

It Takes A Village…

The ride to the airport today took about 2 hours. Along the main highway you see women carrying babies, bananas and everything in between. Men hail down matutu’s (busses) and cling to the doors. Goats are narrowly missed by the many cars that swerve to avoid potholes. There is red dust and exhaust fumes. When the traffic slows to a crawl you can buy sugar cane to chew or a newspaper or new sunglasses, from all the vendors who walk past the cars. Well outside the city I spotted a forlorn herd of zebra, a sad reminder of days when abundant wildlife still roamed on these planes. Now most animals moved to the relative safety of national parks.
I loved the stories I heard from my driver in Kenya. He told me much about politics, both in small villages, in the capital city and in the country. There seems to be a lot of corruptness, a lot of crime both small and large. But also much kindness. Previous employers of his gave him their car when they returned to Europe.
White employers generally supply a pension for their personnel if they stay with them for more than 15 years. Having a housekeeper you can trust means you can simply go away without having any worries about house, garden, pets, etc.
When I got picked up by Henry, my driver, he was in the kitchen oohing and aahing over the dishwasher. He had never seen one and was amazed that a machine could wash plates and cutlery. I told him not to tell his wife because it made husbands redundant…
I loved driving around on Sunday, when large groups of people walked to church. Children in beautiful, frilly dresses. Men in stiff black suits. One could hear very happy, very loud gospel singing from tents and buildings everywhere. We drove by expansive tea plantations and old, colonial homes.
‘It takes a village to raise a child’ is a true saying here. Henry told me long stories about Kenyan weddings. Apparently a child does not belong to its parents here, but to the entire village. He said that, not long ago, the price for a bride, was paid in goats. But now it is paid in other goods such as sugar, drinks, maize, etc. He said “You cannot carry these gifts to the elders in plastic bags. You have to put it in nice baskets.”
The bridal price is paid to some village elders, not necessarily to the parents of the girl. One elder has to give permission for the marriage. He added that you also have to bring cloth for wrap-around shawls for all the women in the village, maybe 200 of them.
Henry’s English was very good but he swaps the ‘r’ for an ‘l’ and visa versa. Hence I had to think for a second when he seriously told me that his daughter wants to be a pirate when she grows up.
It took me a while to figure out she wants to be a pilot…
When I asked Henry if he knew someone who might want my old safari hat, he smiled broadly and immediately slapped it on his head. “Now I am a black mzungu!” he grinned. (Mzungu is a white person).
When we got to the airport, there was security and gates. He rolled down his window and an armed security guy leaned in, shook hands with him, slapped him on the shoulder. They had a laughing conversation in Swahili, the guy leaned across and shook my hand. When we drove on, I asked if this was a friend of Henry’s. “No,” he said, “never seen him before. People are just nice here.”If you ever plan to be in Nairobi and need a driver, or someone to take you on an entire safari – let me know and I’ll give you Henry’s contact information. He is a pleasant person, a very good driver as well as a certified guide.

Africa Unplugged

Turns out there is no internet, no phone connection deep inside the savannah of Zambia… We did not even have TV and, several times, no electricity for a day. It was kind of nice but also meant no contact with the rest of the world. So here is, finally, a new update.

 We flew from Lusaka to Mfuwe. We knew we would get picked up and taken to the safari lodge called Lion Camp, located inside the boundaries of South Luanga National Park. But, really, we had no idea what to expect. 
Outside the tiny terminal, a safari vehicle was waiting for us. A large jeep, extended with 3 benches that are higher than the driver’s seat. It was the standard 38º C or more. Our bags were loaded and we climbed onboard for the wind blown trip down the dusty red road. It turned out to be a 2 1/2 hour drive from the airport to the lodge. After 15 minutes or so we drove through the village of Mfuwe (Muh-FOO-way): clusters of straw huts and crooked wooden stalls. The poorest of poor people sitting in the shade of a few straggly trees – some selling tomatoes. Barefooted children waving at us. We noticed campfires for cooking, some brick ovens for baking. A rusty dangling sign announced a ‘beauty parlor’ or the Good Tidings Fish Store’.
When we reach the entrance gate to South Luangwa National Park, we cross the long cement bridge over the Luangwa River. Almost immediately the drive from the airport turns into a game drive.
Elephants lumbered on the sandy banks of the almost dried up river; a huge group of hippos is almost submerged in the river to escape the midday sun so they don’t get sunburned.
To our amazement we spot a pride of eight lions sleeping under a tree. Giraffes stride through the bushes. Buffaloes with their large black judge’s wigs on their heads track to the river.
When we finally reach the lodge, it turns out to be a gorgeous large building that blends into the environment with a straw roof and mud coloured walls. One hostess greets us with wet towels, the other serves us a cold drink. What a welcome in this 4 star resort.

Radiating out from the main lodge, are raised wooden walkways that lead to a small number of cottages. They are raised to separate us from the lions… Our chalet is the far one, the honeymoon suite. Never will I forget the moment that we opened the door. We looked across the kingsize bed, covered in a white mosquito net, and out of the two large screened walls. A wooden porch surrounded our room but the view was of the river bank: absolutely teeming with animals: a large herd of zebras, snorting hippos, a few giraffes and, to top it off, a small herd of elephants lumbered by – right outside our windows. It truly was a jaw dropping view. 

We had ten minutes to wash hands, put on more sunscreen, have a cup of tea and we were off again. This time on our first official safari drive. Our guide was Hendrix, a very nice and knowledgable wildlife guide. To our amazement our safari drives have been almost always for just the two of us. I had imagined, before we came here, that we would be with a car load of other tourists. But it is just the two of us and sometimes one other person.

On the game drive, we see a large male lion devouring a piece of meat under a tree.
Coming around a bend, there suddenly is a hyena showing its teeth at us. A large herd of elephants has little ones and is lazily browsing on leaves.
The next morning we drive down the river bank, onto the white sand and find ourselves in the middle of a pride of 18 lions. Two little cubs are playing in the sun. Father Lion looks identical to the lion king, surveying his pride and his kingdom.
Zebras abound. Hippos crowd the river so that it looks like you can walk across their backs to the other side. I have never seen such huge crocodiles, one staring up at me from below the river bank.
We stop for a coffee/tea break on the morning drive, and for sundowners during the afternoon/evening drives. The first night we stop at the river bank, during a brilliant red sunset where tables with beer and champagne and chicken wings await us. For once, it is kind of nice to be spoiled in a 4 star hotel. In fact, the amount of wildlife we see in the first two days makes me realize that, if you are on a budget, it might be more economical to spend 2 days in a top notch resort with the best possible guide, then to spend 5 days in a cheaper place. We saw everything we could have wished for in those first two days.
Dining is at 8 PM by candlelight.
Zebras
We spend the next few days in a cheaper lodge but still with elephants roaming outside our door and hippos snorting into the fading evening light.

During the next few days we see a leopard: the first one has just killed an impala and hauled it into a tree. Then we spot one with two cubs. The fields are dotted with bush bucks, impala, waterbucks, kudu’s and more. I love the wart hogs who run with their tails straight up like a little flag pole. In the spot light at night we see mongoose, porcupine and curvets.

The array of animals is rounded out by endangered wild dogs, a hyena in the day time, lots of zebra and giraffes, birds of all shapes and sizes. It is survival of the fittest: on the first day we saw how wildlife officers tried to save 8 buffaloes who were stuck in the mud – it didn’t work because two days later we see their carcasses covered in vultures. Even a pride of satisfied lions had their fill of buffalo meat.
Of course I (Kees) was very interested to find out what it takes to become a wildlife guide/park ranger in Zambia. On the second day I find an operations manual for wild life guides, the same type I used to write for the park rangers in Kananaskis Provincial Park many years ago. It surprised me the amount of detail they had to learn about wildlife, laws, resource management, history, constellations, and much much more. There is no school for park ganger/guide, but they start as a scout, assisting the certified guides and over the years through self study they have to memorize the entire manual of 165 pages. Then they have to sit for an oral and written exam and a practical exam in the field. That will provide them with the Guide I certificate and after a few years, of more study they can obtain the Guide II certificate which will allow them to conduct walking safaris.

The guide also has to be a car mechanic.. When we were surrounded by lions I wondered if the truck would start again. It did. But once it did not… Just before, we had stopped next to a leopard and would not have been able to get out. When the truck died, there were no animals and the two of us pushed it downhill to start!

An option to a game drive, is to take a walking safari. Walking appeals to us. But does a walking safari mean that you can run into lions? In a way, it does. But the guide takes us to an area where he feels it is unlikely to run into anything too big or dangerous. It is not a long, arduous hike but an interesting stroll through the African bush. The guide reads the ground like the pages of an open book. “Look,” he points, “ a hyena walked here. He was not in a rush because only the two middle claws show.” [It takes me a while to understand that ‘craw mecks’ means ‘claw marks’… ]
He points out where baboons dined on the fiber of elephant droppings. We see gorgeous round clay pots, broken open. They are the large balls that a dung beetle rolls through the mud. He shows us intricately woven weaver bird weaves nests that always hang on the west side of a tree. There’s even a bird called taylor bird which stitches leaves together with real stitches. We follow trails made by elephants and hippos, see a large flock of bright green love birds that look like the leaves of a tree flying off…
One afternoon, we have lunch at Track & Trail River Camp. They’ve set a little table for us and when I look up I spot an elephant. Then three more. They come within meters. From the safety of the kitchen door we watch as they stroll passed, right next to the bar.
We visit Chipembele Wildlife Centre, an impressive visitors’ centre set up and run by a British couple. They were both police officers in England, obsessed by Africa. Seventeen years ago they moved here, built a house in the bush and now educate African children on the importance of wildlife. On the side, he catches poachers. 
He tells us about one poacher who has just been released from prison. Through some local contacts, we manage to make a date with the guy and spend an afternoon chatting with him. What motivates a poacher? Money.
The (ex)poacher has nine children and no job. 70% unemployment in Zambia means no work, no income. So how does a father provide for his family? How does he put food on the table?
The easiest way is by poaching. Edwin told us he built his own guns and would spend the night in the bush, hunting impala, buffalo, kudo and more. He ate the meat but mostly sold it.
He got caught. At some point he got offered a job but screwed up and went back to poaching. He ended up in jail. Jail in Zambia is not for the faint of heart. “1,500 mean in one cell,” he says. People right next to him died of suffocation. One meal a day of a kind of uncooked porridge. It was a wonder that he survived the year. But now he swears he will never poach again. Only time will tell. We hope he will find a job. His skills as tracker are probably unparalleled. And he now seems to agree: wildlife needs to be protected. Wildlife brings tourists and tourists bring money.
We also understand the problems caused by free roaming wildlife. Herds of elephants trample and eat the crops of corn. They brake into grain storage units. Governments try to help villagers by building stronger storage units. They supply villagers with ‘chili bombs’ and help them to plant chili hedges to discourage elephants.
In Mfuwe, the village nearest the National Park, people have lots of trouble with elephants. “They come through our village at night and eat all of the mangos,” our driver tells us, “but in the next village can sleep outside without fear of being trampled.”
I think about this as I fall asleep to the music of cicadas and the loud ‘snoring’ of hippos just outside our chalet along the river. That night we have the very first rain fall of the new rainy season – the first rain in 7 or 8 months. It will soon transform the region into a lush green forest with wide rivers and newborn animals.

Into Africa

We took a taxi to a beautiful lodge along the Zambezi River to watch the sunset. We sat in lazy chairs on a wooden patio, right at the water’s edge.

Hippos frolick in the water, blowing air and splashing at each other. And, to our delight, we spot zebras! A whole herd. One even has a baby.
And then… giraffes! Real, wild giraffes. First there’s only one. Its thick long legs look exactly like the tree trunks surrounding it. You can only spot him when he moves. Then three more giraffes appear. They lazily munch on leaves, stretch higher for more green and then spread their long legs wide to reach down to the grass.
As the sun slowly sets, and the zebras graze behind us, while the hippos snort in the Zambezi, Kees and I grin at each other: we are finally in Africa!
A few days later we have flown back to Lusaka and, just outside the city, we see more zebras and giraffes. But we also spot our first hartebeest, impalas, vervet monkeys and warthog! What a thrill to see these African animals in the wild!
Baskets and Boreholes
 Early in the morning the book bus drives us an hour out of town, off the main road and onto a bumpy dirt road. The road winds through a tiny village of straw huts. Women squat by fires, babies tied to their back. Spindly children run and play with a string and a piece of metal tied to it. At one hut I see men butchering a pig. Chickens scratch the red dust.
The road gets narrower. More huts. Each time I think we’ve reached the village where the school is, we keep going further into the bush, across dusty land.
Finally we reach a brightly painted school house with flagpole. We’ve come to read stories and do crafts with the 1st and 2nd graders. The students here have desks thanks to a grant from a NGO. The walls have been painted with multiplication tables and slogans. One poster listed combinations of letters to sound out: ‘has, had, have’ The teacher has written under it “Practise these sounds oftenly.”
I read my Emma book and every mouth drops open when my Emma chicken puppet moves her head. They giggle and touch carefully. We make paper chickens and do more songs, read books and make crafts. For some, it is the first time they use scissors. One girl tries, mouth open, for ages to cut a little strip of paper. Another boy cuts flawlessly along the black lines, ever so careful not to miss a bit.
Then a lady comes from the village to give us a tour. Her name is Janice. She is a grandmother, a volunteer teacher at the preschool and a guide for any visitor to her village. “We are grateful to your clan,” she says, explaining that all western visitors are the clan who have made this school possible. “Our children learn, and have a future now,” she says.
We walk for a long time into the bush along a narrow, dusty trail, until we reach the first straw hut. No stone or cement buildings anywhere. No cars. Just straw huts in the bush and people walking barefooted everywhere. A few children are not in school. Their parents haven’t paid what it takes to get a uniform and shoes, about 3 dollars.
Women sweep, carry babies and water, they make fires for cooking and haul water. The village is lucky. A Japanese NGO built a water pump, solar powered, that brings water to the surface and stores it in giant tanks. They come to fill a container and carry it back on their heads. I can barely lift one of the containers with my hand, let alone carry it on my head. We meet a young girl with two little siblings. She carries a 40 L container on her head and a 15 L jug in her hand. The maybe 5 year old carries a large container too and even the toddler, maybe 2 or 3, has a jug on his head. We offer some help and carry the containers part of the way. They are on the way to their grandfather’s house, they explain, to bring him water. But the toddler doesn’t want help. He wants to do it all by himself.
Janice shows us inside the yards of some huts. A woman hangs laundry, scrubs in a tub. Another makes a fire to cook maize. Chickens have wire and branch houses and laying nests. We visit the pub, where Kees bravely tastes the local brown beer, a foul looking muddy drink. The homes are either straw or mud huts. The mud huts have a frame of branches with chicken wire stretched between. The wire is filled up with rocks and then plastered with mud. The houses have the odd wooden bench but mostly people sit and sleep on the mud floor.
I have seldom, if ever, seen such poverty.
One house has a bathroom: outside in the yard are three ‘walls’ of tall grass sheafs and a piece of metal as a door. Inside a wooden bench where you can place a bowl to wash yourself.
We chat with the village head man who lounges in an old lawn chair and makes wicker baskets for a living. His daughter looks after him, cleaning and cooking and caring for house and livestock. She shows us a game: indentations in the dirt with beans that need to be picked up and moved. I show her how we play hop-scotch and marbles. We laugh and laugh.
There is one tiny village store, where a young mother sells tomatoes, okra and eggs. This store makes me think of the ones I see on KIVA where we make loans to people who struggle, just like this. See: http://www.kiva.org
Cattle take a break from grazing in the shade of some trees. Everything is dry and dusty, yet a lot of trees are suddenly sprouting new, green leaves. “These trees sense that the rains are coming,” we are told. “When you see these new leaves, you know that it will rain in a few weeks.” Just like the cicadas who start chirping 4 weeks before the rain…

We hope it really waits a few more weeks. I cannot imagine living here when the rains come. Everything will be mud. Roads and houses flood, and all roads will turn into thick sticky red mud.

But the rain also brings food. Open areas in the bush have been burned in preparation for the planting of corn. They will plant corn soon. It will provide flour, the basic staple for the coming year. But elephants are a huge threat. They will be attracted by the fresh green plants and don;t know that they destroy the people’s annual crop when they trample and munch the corn stalks. How do you solve such a problem? The elephants are protected and can’t be shot. But how do the people protect their life line? It is a baffling problem that many villages here face.

Livingstone, I presume?

Getting up early, we left the compound at 7 AM with two local young men, each of us on a bicycle. What a great way to see the city and surrounding area. These young men are part of a job training school, with the income going to the school and the students learning different trades, like being a guide.
We cycled through one part of town, then across the railroad tracks to another. Even saw a train from Lusaka chugging along, people leaning out of the glass-less windows. Trash blowing everywhere.
The two guides took us to see the local rock quarry where people work all day long, in the blazing heat, to pound rocks into gravel. Small children sit in the dirt, helping their mothers.
A mother might have a two year old strapped to her back while pounding, and more children around her, all working away. For a wheelbarrow full of gravel that might get one dollar, if anyone needs gravel that day. Young boys haul the large rocks out of the pit and throw them up on top. Heavy, terrible work. But it is work and makes an income of sorts, with which they can buy corn and other food.  We saw one boor hole in the area where people came with jugs of all sizes to collect water.
Everyone is lovely as can be, smiling and saying “Hello, how are you?”
One smiling grandmother came over to us with her screaming 2 year old and held out her hand to us, saying to the child “See, there are just like us, just people!” The kid was scared of seeing white people…

We cycled on along dirt roads lined with tiny houses and rackety shops. Crossed over a railroad bridge and went to a market. Many stalls offered fish, fresh or dried, spices, fruits and all sorts of other wares. Others offered used clothing and shoes. It is amazing to see how clean people are, often wearing white clothing. I feel dusty and grubby much of the time.
Children came running, calling “Hello!” and waving. “Mzungu!” we kept hearing, going from child to child, “White people are coming!” And the kids would run up, wide grins on their faces, waving as hard as they could. I chatted with mothers and grandmothers, everyone with beautiful smiles.
We were home just when the temperatures got too high for cycling. A cold coke never tasted so good.  

Is the Book Bus for you?

Voluntourism is huge around the world. It is so much more meaningful to spend your holidays helping others, than to just fly somewhere and lie on the beach, right? But volunteering abroad can be very expensive, even when you know that part of your costs will help others. The Zambia Book Bus’s office is based in the UK and has one person running and coordinating the bus in Livingstone. She has been here for 6 years and done an amazing job. Everyone respects her: the local people all know her, the children everywhere come running and calling “Kelly! Kelly!” The police, the store people, taxi drivers, everyone seems to know her and love her. Can you imagine living in a tent for 6 years with nothing but a few clothes and the strong determination to make life a little happier for many children, to help them realize the joy of books and wanting to learn? 
The Book Bus visits Livingstone area schools. Kelly and the volunteer team read books to the children and conduct activities based on the books. For instance, today I read two African animal tales to them and then they drew an animal and decorated it. We also made book journals so that they can keep track of the books they read.
Even though I have spent most of my life in children’s literature, and done 12 years of weekly story time in a library, it’s the little things here that blow me away. The kids have no frame of reference for books about so many concepts. Of course, books are meant to be a window on the world and will teach them new things. But how can you relate to a pet fish when you live in Africa? Why would people paint eggs? Or keep a dog inside a house? These kids have no electricity or running water. Many people live in their small home or hut and struggle for a daily living. Books about food? Can’t use them… the kids are hungry. Even Dr. Seuss’ “You have feet in your shoes…” doesn’t fly here for many children.
In order to hand out coloring sheets, following the story, we (the current 4 staff members) sit and draw (or trace) 100 pictures of butterflies. No photocopier here!
The Book Bus accommodations are primitive. When we first arrived I was quite amazed at just how primitive. We sleep in a regular tent – no wooden floor, no veranda. Just a plain tent with, some broken, zippers in the red dust. There’s a kind of gazebo with a large picnic table where we spend most of the evening. It has a light. We cook outside on another picnic table. Dishes are stored in plastic bins. There is a fridge and a kettle and a power bar to charge our batteries.
After only 3 days in Zambia, I realize that I now find this place quite luxurious. There’s a pool with cold, refreshing water. A dusty bathroom block has toilets and showers with, sometimes, warm water. After working hard all day, Kelly cooks a pot of food for all of us and we do the dishes.
If you want luxury, don’t come.
But do come if you don’t mind camping in the heat, without air conditioning, it’s an interesting place. The Book Bus is based by a house with a kind-of-campground. It is shady, sheltered and safe. It is 20 minute walk into town to the supermarket, which has most things you could wish for. And your cost to participate includes all meals. You can hand wash your clothes in a large old bathtub outside, and laundry hung on the wires is dry within two hours.
We only work mornings, leaving around 8:30 and returning by 1 or 2 PM. (called 13 or 14 hours in Zambia).
The book bus takes us to a different school each day where we read stories to and with the children, followed by activities. Their school has no paper or glue or scissors. Even adults ask shyly if they can make an elephant mask or color a picture… In some places, the book bus attracts 300 children!
On Monday we drove out of town to a village school along the main road. A large group of children, grades 2 and 3, were overjoyed to see us. “Book-a-bussie!” they call. We read stories. They all love Emma and nearly fall over when she moves… Then we color paper chickens and make butterflies. “Teacha, teacha!” they call, wanting crayons or showing their work.
When we came ‘home’ with the book bus, we turned one large sheet of hardboard into a chalkboard by painting it with blackboard paint. And two large squares of soft board were turned into brightly painted bulletin boards. Kelly has worked hard to realize new schools and classrooms. And now she helps with getting desks and turning these spaces into bright, happy classrooms. She’s helped young women to became assertive teachers and children to want to learn how to read.
If you love storytelling, reading picture books, and working with kids – do consider coming here. You can work as a volunteer for two week stretches. We saw more things than any tourist will ever see, being able to visit isolated villages where people opened their homes to us. Places you will not visit while on a regular ‘safari’. Be sure to check out the website for details: www.thebookbus.org
If you live in The Netherlands, check out Mambulu Safaris: http://www.mambulu.com  They are the Book Bus’ official rep in Holland and planned our entire Africa trip for us.

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.