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.

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/