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Jun 2011

Our 2 Contrasting New Schools

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

So the 2011 season is well under way and we have already established some close links with the 2 new schools that have become part of our program this year.

Mondays now see us visit Libuyu community school. This is a school similar to that at Linda which used to be Mondays destination. It is in the heart of one of Livingstone’s busiest, nosiest and poorest suburbs. It’s close to a huge market and health centre and driving there you get a real sense of African everyday living. It has around 400 pupils from grades 1 to 7. The teaching takes place in one large hall (it used to be some kind of depo) There are some plywood partitions but you can just imagine the noise when there are 5 classes taking place at once.

The staff here are all volunteers, except the head, who is a paid government teacher. Mr Matenga is a quiet, smiling man who beams when he talks about his job. He is absolutely thrilled to have the Book Bus visit his school and he always comes walking around, hands clasped behind his back, seeing what we are doing, praising the students and offering encouragement. He is one of the most involved heads that I have met during my time in Africa. His staff also have an obvious and open respect for him.

Classes here are relatively big and we start our week off teaching an hour each of grade 4, 5, 6 and 7. Volunteer numbers have been relatively low for the past few weeks so we are getting experts at what works well when you have 20 kids on your mat!! (Top tip – avoid glitter (oh -and sequins!!) Quizzes have become very popular with the older groups. It ensures that they have to read through the book, because with so many you cant listen to them all read individually and they love working in teams and competing with their classes mates. Although there is an obvious rivalry they always conclude with a “clap for the winner!” Here in Zambia the pupils always help each other if someone is stuck and they rarely seem to make fun or laugh at the less able students.

The pupils also love having us and now they are used to this weekly ritual, even suggesting which topics they would like to do next week and regularly asking why we can’t come everyday! We teach outside in a small courtyard with fruit trees as shade, although chasing the shade still does occur. The soil is a deep shade of terracotta and we always climb aboard the bus exhausted and covered in red sand….who has the dirtiest feet is often a topic of conversation on the way home!! (another top tip – don’t wear white trousers!!!)

On Tuesday, in direct contrast, we visit Chileleko (Tonga for Blessings) Community School. We drive right through Libuyu and exit Livingstone and, although we are only a few kilometres from town, it feels like we are really out in the bush. It is so peaceful here. There is no electricity or water in the area (which is called Mapensi – most Livingstonians don’t even know where it is.) and people live mostly in traditional mud and thatch houses The school is situated right next to the Maramba river, which eventually flows into the Zambezi and we teach outside, behind the school, under trees with views of nothing but wilderness.

There are about 280 pupils here and they come from surrounding villages. The children here are the politest I have met during BookBus, this comes from the head teacher and founder of the school, Emmanuel. He and his brother, James, run the school which has 6 teachers, all of whom are volunteers. Emmanuel and James are both trained teachers but they have refused paid government posts because they want to continue working here. Emmanuel hopes that one day the position of head teacher of Chileleko will be recognised by the government and will attract some kind of salary (as is happening in more and more community schools). It is rare to see such sacrifice and dedication to a cause and when myself and other volunteers complimented him on the behaviour of his pupils, he smiled and said, “Hearing things like that makes all the hardships worthwhile.”

We teach grades 5, 6 and 7 and it really is a pleasure to be here. The pupils, the teachers and the setting all make for a relaxed morning. And just for your information the soil here is light brown and although you get dusty (especially with the wind that doesn’t seem to reach town blowing the dust around) it doesn’t generate the same type of feet related conversations on the way home as Monday!!

It is a great feeling to have found two such worthy schools to continue the Livingstone Book Bus in 2011. I’m sure you will be hearing more about them from me as the season continues.

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May 2011

The Real Thing

Posted by / in Africa /

Occasionally, rarely, you come across a place that stops you in your tracks and leaves a hint of a smile on your chops. These hidden gems tend to be off the beaten track, tricky to get to and even trickier to learn about in the first place. Privacy, these days, is the new luxury commodity. Anyone can do plush soft furnishings and good service, but a stunning location coupled with privacy, that’s the real nub of the matter; that’s what’s hard to find and even harder to preserve.

I used to know Malawi pretty well but haven’t been there for some years, so it makes perfect sense that my latest trip to rediscover Malawi should end up on the shores of Lake Malawi but actually within the territorial boundary of Mozambique! I had heard about a top-draw little lodge with just 8 cottages that the grapevine told me it was impressed with. This lodge has no road access: you can fly to one of two airstrips that are close-ish, but then it’s either of long, long walk or an hour in a motorboat to reach the lodge itself. Intriguing!

Remote? Yes. No-phone zone? Definitely. Electricity? No. Absolute barefoot luxury? Oh yes! You come to a place like this to forget about all your toys. Slow right down, let your shoulders drop and settle into the local pace. And the local pace redefines “relax”. It’s really strange, but the first day you’re a tad frustrated and want to shake someone and yell “get on with it!”. Day two and you begin to get the point and on the morning of day three the penny has dropped and you realise why you made all that effort. This lodge is so well designed that you can’t see or hear your neighbours. Even the bathrooms are al fresco, with just the one wall and no roof and even a stuck-in-the-mud pilgrim like me becomes a bit of a naturist by day three. The place is put together with such craft that you feel you’re the only ones there. There really is no-one to disturb you except for the odd low-flying egret.

The nights were my favourite time: dinner on the beach with the other guests (if that takes your fancy) and then you’re gently set adrift. There are some decks cunningly concealed amongst the huge granite boulders that surround the lake and from where you can not see an electric light – anywhere! Zero light pollution! Stunning silence! The gentlest of breezes. And all wrapped up in an African night that’s black-cat dark and as soft as velvet. The star-scape has to be seen to be believed: the tropical sky is always so excitingly different from home but when conditions are perfect, this is the most romantic, erotic of settings. Our cottage was lit with a couple of dim oil-lamps and in this half-light a nightjar, on silent wings, flew in through one of the non-existent walls and out through the opposite one. How it sensed the voluminous mosi-net was there, and avoided it, I will never know. Pure magic!

This is Nkwichi, which is an onomatopoeia from the local language and is the sound barefeet make walking across the talcum-powder-soft sand.

This is a dangerous place: whoever you take with you, you are liable to fall in love with them!

More info / to book:

Note: VentureCo do not charge a fee to arrange safaris in Africa. We are paid a commission from the lodges and safari outfitters with whom we work. We can generally obtain better trade rates for you than those available to members of the public.

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Mar 2011

Rainy Season in Zambia!

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

Life carries on much the same in Zambia during rainy season, the only differences are: the roads are much worse, people are even later for things than usual and they have a new excuse “the rains”, and the landscape is completely transformed. Everything bursts to life, the bush is every imaginable shade of green, and people are growing maize on every available spot of land. If you have only visited in the dry season when everything is brown and brittle you would be amazed at the difference. It is hard to believe it’s the same place, the road to the falls is unrecognisable and there is no chance of spotting game crossing the road, there is enough food and water everywhere so they aren’t forced to traipse down to the river.

Next week I will get to see plenty of this greenery on the 3000km round trip from Livingstone to Blantyre to collect the truck. The first 1500km will be by public bus – the joys of only stopping once on a 9 hour journey and then only for a matter of minutes, when the driver honks you have about 0.2 seconds to re-board or else!! If you are super- unlucky you get a driver who plays his favourite tape at full blast on repeat for the entire journey!! It will be great to meet up with Douglas again and at least on the journey back we will have full control of toilet/snack stops!! I’ve promised to take Douglas to see the Victoria Falls this time, as when he was here in 2010 I was slightly uber-busy and he missed out!

The falls are always green because of the spray but at the moment all the rains mean that the water level is slowly rising. They are very spectacular at this time of year and not quite at their fullest so you can get quite close without getting soaked! The spray blows with the wind so sometimes you get a covering of fine waterdrops, but with temperatures in the 30’s everyday this is cooling and very pleasant.

Tourism at this time of year is very low, but in my opinion it’s a great time to visit. The rains are not debilitating. It generally rains for an hour or so in the afternoon and before and after the skies are brilliant blue. It’s hot but not unbearably so as in October, the nights are warm and you can sit out, so not cool, like June and July. There are few other tourists so you can get good deals on hotels and at activities there are no crowds. The only downside is that it can be harder to spot game because of the greenery and the fact that they don’t have to travel to find scarce water. This saying I went to Chobe last month and saw some of the best game since I was in Africa. There was a whole herd of elephants in the water right by our boat and the youngsters were all playing, it was amazing sitting and watching them play-fight, just like human children!

Since I’ve been back in Livingstone I’ve visited most of our schools several times! It’s great to come back and be genuinely welcomed by the teachers and the pupils. I’ve spent quite a lot of time at the community project in Zweilopili. They have built new grass shelters and been able to put tarpaulin on the roof to keep the rains out, thanks to the generosity of some 2010 Book Bus volunteers. They have also constructed a toilet and are planning another classroom block. Mr Mwiya, who has recently retired as deputy head of Nakatindi, is an inspiration to everyone with his dedication of starting this project and even funding much of it himself. At the moment he is trying hard to encourage girls who dropped out of school because of pregnancies to come and take free tuition classes so they can get back into education.

Going to Lubasi is always a highlight and I had a great afternoon the other week playing with the kids. They have completed the building of their chapel whilst I was away, so once a month now on Sundays they have their own service at the home. Last month they had a fundraising Zambian meal. The staff dressed up in costumes from different provinces, and prepared food from those areas. There were about 70 tourists and locals who all paid an entrance fee and the money is going towards the upkeep of the home. It was a fun afternoon with lots of singing and dancing and a chance to try the famous caterpillars that the Luvali people from the north western province enjoy eating! Its great to see that the home is using it’s initiate to raise money and not just relying on donors.

This season we will be including 2 new schools in the Book bus program both of which I have recently visited. One I discovered the first year I was here, but with the bus, visiting would be difficult but now we have the truck I thought it was time to give it a go. It’s called Chileleko, which is Tonga for Blessings and the teachers and pupils are very excited about our impending visits. They still remembered me from my one visit in July 2008!!
The other is Libuyu community school and again the bus couldn’t visit but now in 2011 in comes the truck! It’s always a challenge to begin at new schools because it takes time to get organised and to get teachers and pupils used to what we do, but it is rewarding when you can see the improvement in the kids week by week!

I can’t wait to get started…roll on April 30th!!

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Feb 2011

Camilla Davies: Experiences of a past Venturer

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

“Todo es possible, pero nada es seguro”
Everything is possible but nothing is certain.

I write this nearly a year to the day of arriving in Ecuador with the excitable VentureCo Inca and Amazon 76, anticipating new experiences, culture and excitement. My time in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador and Peru absolutely exceeded those expectations. From the blistering cold beauty of a 6000ft Mt Cotopaxi sunrise, to the glorious, otherworldly heights of Machu Pichu, my 15 weeks were packed with highs, made all the better for the warm, accommodating locals met along the way. Starting in Quito, Ecuador, I soon became fast friends with my fellow Venturers; sharing dorms, food (and most importantly toilets!) with 19 others creates a special bond and I left Heathrow those months later eager for their company again.

VentureCo issues each travelling group with a local guide – for us it was the unbeatable Wilson Garcia, who is not simply a leader, but a friend, a confidante, and a very wise man. Local leaders know all the haunts and will undoubtedly have a friend in every village, town and city. This proves a great asset along the way; whether warning me against the old man’s Bolivian bar, or guiding us towards the best Alpaca meat in town, Wilson really added to my VentureCo experience.

The expedition will see you through testing moments – try cycling Death Road in Bolivia after a VERY shaky journey getting there- and I cannot neglect to mention the infamous upset stomach, which will haunt any group travelling South America. Look forward to knowing everybody else’s bowel movements. I now bear war wounds of infected bites and scabby knees, but these woes become superficial when witnessing moments of absolute serenity amongst the South American landscape. Waking up to an unending view of Lake Titicaca, arising aching from trekking in the cold shadow of a snowy mountain, catching crocodiles’ red eyes gleaming at you in the night as you’re canoed through piranha infested waters…these moments are unforgettable.

But VentureCo is not all about nature. Far from it! Interaction with locals is essential for understanding a country and its people; lessons in Spanish helped us communicate with locals and this makes so much difference, whether in chatting up the Ecuadorian barmaid or sharing with host families in home stays. I must warn you; a basic understand of Spanish is invaluable working with the Book Bus. The words “Listen” and “read” quickly became a key part of my vocabulary.

The Book Bus is a deserving project that serves to encourage children in jungle community schools to read and gain a proper education. 2010 was the Book Bus’ South American debut, which resulted in us waving sheepishly at Ecuadorian news cameras… potentially a path towards a career in the media too?! While the Book Bus can be tiring, it is rewarding and a worthwhile cause. To help those without opportunities in education also made me appreciate what I have, cheesy as it sounds. Despite language barriers, the kids were so responsive to our visits; be that in an elevated love of reading, or simply a new found love of glitter is hard to know!

So…favourite moments of the trip? Getting spat at and breathed fire on by a witch doctor/Shaman on my third day. Served as a nice introduction to Ecuador! A night time monkey infestation of our Bolivian jungle lodge (note: don’t leave Mars Bars near hungry monkeys). Trekking for four days in the same set of clothes then the joys of a WARM SHOWER. All nighters in LaPaz, Bolivia. Llamas. Waking up after a few too many mohitos/pina coladas/ pisco sours laughing at the nights antics. Horseriding in the Atacama Desert in what looks like an alien landscape. The infinite whiteness of the Bolivian Salt Flats. Houseparties in the VentureCo house in Puerto Lopez…you’ve gotta love the reggaton. Meat with two carbs every night. Dancing with the locals. Salsa! Inca Kola. Lunchtime Mohitos on the beach…because why not? Construction work – digging those foundations in the baking sun. Rafting in Tena, Ecuador; the cause of severe sunburn and blisters but what a laugh. Being unashamedly clad in Gringo attire. Market towns and enthusiastic locals, who love to share their culture with you (for instance, in Ecuador you get whipped on your birthday…apparently!). The unavoidable “when I was in South America…” moments that seem irresistible for months after your return. Friends met along the way. Swimming near the dolphins in brown water. I could go on…

South America has left a big impression on my life and I would encourage anyone to take a visit. VentureCo’s organised itinerary (whilst not including all the activities I’ve talked about) gives someone like me, who was hesitant about travelling alone, but knew she had to go, the chance to make new friends and explore a remarkable continent. Good luck to you!

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Jan 2011

The Beginning of Venture Co…

Posted by / in South America /

So I’m here in a different country finally having survived the first half of my trip in complete luxury really, thanks to dear uncle alan!

I was a little nervous as I left him at Lima airport and made my way through customs to the airport and the feeling not made any better by a flight which was delayed by 4 hours and so arriving at 3.30 am instead of midnight. Of course everyone was asleep by the time I got to the selvre agrea hostel and i had to dive into an unfamiliar bed in a room with 2 strangers at 4am with the promise of only 3 hours sleep.

The two strangers in my room turned out to be Inger (22, Norweigan) and Emily (18, American) and we made our way down to berakfast Friday morning along with lots of polite convesation with the rest of the group – 11 of us in total plus 2 leaders – in order to find out more about each other.

Since then the group has bonded so well, there’s no-one who’s left out and everybody seems to have some common ground – to be expected I suppose when we are all interested in travelling to the same places. There are 3 guys from Singapore, straight out of the (compulsory) army, Daryl, Darren and Chinx, 3 girls from London all on gap years – Matilda, Kate and Theodora, one guy from London who is also half Bolivian called Nikoli and another girl who is from all over the place but who at the moment lives in Hong Kong – Amanda.

The first weekend we went to a market town called Otovalo. It is home to South Americas biggest market and was pretty spectacular. You could buy anything from paanpipes to llama jumpers to gap year, striped, trousers. 1 day in I was already spending too much… We stayed in a cute little hostel – all the girls in one dorm and so providing us with an opportunity to get to know eachother a little better. Sunday morning we were told we were going on a nice walk round a lagoon which turned into a major hike up a hill at altiude. Soon discovered quite how unfit I am and how much altitude affects your breathing (so I like to think) and most of us struggled up to the top.

Monday was the beginning of Spanish lessons, 4 hours a day with a teacher who cant speak English. To be fair it probably has helped quite a bit as I have had to learn how to understand the local accent. My spanish is still basic and still in 2 tenses but its improving!

In the afternoons we have done various things, salsa and cooking lessons, visiting the equator, seeing the new town, the old town (camera stolen on a tram -lovely) had some free time to skype too. Weekend just gone (el fin de semana pasada) we headed to Cotopaxi, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world. We all walked up to the refugio at 4800m, again stopping every 10 m to catch our breath. At midnight 5 people decided to go up right to the top (midnight climbing essential as snow melts in day time) only the 2 girls managed it, the boys got half way and were advised to turn back, quite glad i cosied up in sleeping bags for the night!

Yesterday we visited the equator and did some gimicky stuff to prove it was so. Off to Tena saturday for 2 weeks of book bus which is this cool little bus, illustrated by quentin blake, that goes to various schools and gives them books and what not. It means we have to read books in Spanish to little chicos, which could be interesting…. but hopefully a great and rewarding experience.

Rushed blog I´m afraid and just a small taster really of what we´ve been up to but I´ll try to write again soon…. until then hasta luego!

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Jan 2011

Inca Amazon Venture 81. 1st Blog.

Posted by / in South America /

2 weeks down, 13 to go! I feel that with such bright beginnings, this is promising to be a fantastic Venture.

We started with a very chilled weekend in Otavalo; browsing the colourful pre-Inca market, hiking to a remote waterfall, playing jenga and lounging in hammocks enjoying the beautiful surrounding countryside. Then it was time for Spanish school in Quito. This group is really dedicated to the cause, and learning really quickly which is wonderful and will serve them well on the rest of the trip. They’ve even acted out stories in Spanish with Oscar winning gusto.

There are 11 venturers representing 5 continents and they are a lovely, diverse bunch; the ideal combination of being both laid back and up for an adventure. Speaking of adventure, last weekend we went to Cotopaxi National Park and hiked up to the refuge at 4810m at the foot of the snow-capped volcano. 5 venturers got up at midnight to climb it; the girls succeeded in getting to the summit and the boys got impressively close.

There have been a couple of nights out on the town, a few Disney film screenings, salsa and cooking classes, games aplenty and the group has had their first taste of practicing their Spanish at a school near Quito, reading to the kids which they really enjoyed, so they’re now ready and confident about the Book Bus project coming up in the Amazon.

If all that isn’t enough, yesterday we went in a cable car high up above Quito with panoramic views and here’s a dare devil photo of the two leaders, Wilson and I, demonstrating our bravery and acrobatic tendencies Wilson saved my life……What do you mean it looks fake?! OK it’s a bit of fun, and there’ll be plenty more of that to come, so stay tuned for the next instalment! (Am off to play football at altitude now! Spanish teachers Vs students. Tis a hard life.)

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Jan 2011

Education in Zambia!

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

In my 2 years in Zambia I have worked in a variety of schools, from preschools to high schools, government funded to volunteer run, from 35 pupils to 1800 but one thing is always common throughout, the eagerness of the children to learn. They see education as the key to improving their situation in life. Even on holidays and through teacher’s strikes the kids turn up at school just to see if anyone will teach them. Nearly all prefer term time to the three, one month slots of holidays they get!!

The education system in Zambia suffers from a severe lack of funds, materials and teachers. But that said the pupils are some of the most willing and keen to learn that you will find anywhere. And everywhere I have taught within Zambia I have been greeted with open arms.

Basic state education begins when a child is 6 or 7 with grade 1. Grade 1 to grade 7 comprises basic education which should include every child and should be free. This is, however, not the case. Many children do not attend school either because of the cost or because they have to work. To attend a basic school the pupil must have a uniform, school shoes and bag, exercise books and pencils and this list obviously excludes many children and there are often unofficial “fees” to pay.

At the end of grade 7 a pupil sits exams and only if passes are obtained can they continue to grade 8 & 9 and the same happens in grade 9 to be able to complete school up to grade 12. There are relatively high fees to be paid every year from grade 8 upwards so many intelligent children end up leaving their education early.

The students take 7 subjects up to grade 7. These being: English, Maths, CTS (creative, technological studies – where there is no actual creative work done – its all theory!), SDS (social development studies), Tonga (or other local language depending on the province), Literacy and Science. ALL learning is done by copying from the board and children are rarely asked for their own opinions. ALL exams in grade 7 are multiple choice, they don’t have to write anything. In theory a pupil who can read and write no English can pass grade 7.

As well as the government schools, Zambia has a large number of Community schools which were developed for children who could not afford to attend government schools. Incredibly under-funded, under-resourced and with a lack of trained teachers these schools are in dire need. Nowadays the government has realized the importance of these schools within the education system and teachers now receive a small wage but they do not have to be trained teachers, so long as they completed high school they can teach.

Basic government schools are usually a little better equipped and resourced than the community schools but the classrooms are just as bare, the teachers have huge classes and no materials but the children are keen to learn wherever you go.

Whichever type of school I visit it is important to bear certain things in mind which are very different from what we are used to in the UK. Classes can be huge with a normal class being 40 to 50 pupils but anywhere up to 100 is possible. The children aren’t used to being asked for their own opinions, education in Zambia is very much learning by rote. They aren’t used to any creative subjects, things like art, drama or music. There simply aren’t the resources, training or equipment available and no provision in their curriculum, and because the classes are overcrowded small group work never occurs.

Classes may have a wide range of ages. This is because some children do not start school until they are older, sometimes they have to miss a year to two if their family needs them to work and sometimes they are made to re-sit a grade.

There is always a very wide ability range in the grasp of English, some pupils may be fluent whilst others struggle with the simplest sentences. It seems to me to be that the ability of a child’s English is determined by their home situation (whether they speak English at home) and not by their schooling. It’s important to remember that English is not their first language, most of them speak 3 or 4 African languages perfectly but they ALL want to learn English.

And one important thing – do not equate Zambian children’s ages and their interests with those of children at home. Teenage boys are just as fascinated with the storybooks and the art supplies the project supplies as the preschoolers! They have never had access to the things which we take for granted. And a final note to everyone…glitter has the power to cause riots in Zambia!!!

If you would like to experience the Zambian Education system first hand why not join the Book Bus Projects operated in the country?

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Dec 2010

DRC (Zaire) back on the map

Posted by / in Africa /

These days safaris can be so disappointing: they used to be the preserve of the well-informed traveller but nowadays you see safaris advertised in all sorts of brochures. The idea of sitting on my bum, in a zebra-striped van with half-a-dozen others appals me.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!

Some years ago (1991) I camped on an oxbow of the river Garamba. We had made the trek after reading Mark Carwardine’s book “Last Chance To See”. I wanted to see one of the world’s last 28 Northern White Rhino. Getting to Garamba used to be a bit of a mission: it sits on the Sudan border, just inside Zaire (as it was in those days) and when we signed in, the foolscap ledger went back to the 1940’s. They hadn’t filled one visitor’s book in more than half a century! Believe me, it really was quite a mission to get there. Safari in Garamba was an amazing experience for a variety of reasons, but the pinnacle was probably being woken by hippo breath. Camping on an oxbow is always dumb, particularly in remote country, but on this particular night we all went to bed in the usual way and by the time the hippos came out to eat, we were all fast asleep in two-man tents. I was awoken in the wee small hours by a hippo exhaling on my sleeping forehead. He took off. I went back to sleep with a grin on my face. Fortunate outcome.

We were still feeling invincible on evening 2 and made camp, which consisted of four small tents, on a raised river bank that gave great views of the river. At dawn there was a huge herd of elephants in the river so we all played possum and kept silent. They soon crossed the river and continued on their way. As we got up we saw that the herd had passed right through camp, between the tents, and many pegs had been flattened into the ground. But not a tent had been touched. Let me tell you, that gives you a slow-burn adrenaline rush.

And the final memory I’ll dredge up to make my point happened on our final morning. We were out before sun-up and came across three people who were poorly concealed beneath an acacia tree. Safety catches were flicked off and we approach with caution because this was rebel country in those days. A warning was shouted which prompted absolutely no reaction. Slowly, slowly a scout crept forward and then beckoned us all in. There were three women who, it transpired, had walked from the fighting in Sudan, right through the park, for about a fortnight. One of the ladies had two fingers missing that had been bitten off during that night by a hyena. They were weak as waifs and when we eventually got them back to camp, the cook boiled up some rice and then discarded it, giving them only the milky water that it had been boiled in. They were so starved that they wouldn’t have been able to cope with proper food at that stage.

I rarely tell these stories, nor the hundred-and-one-others, because no-one would believe them and they’d be dismissed as “pub talk”. But the point is, safari, real safari, takes you absolutely face to face with the harsh and inspiring reality of Africa and her wildlife. That’s what you pay for, tales you can’t tell because folks back home will think you’re making them up! But occasionally you meet a person who has been there and seen the African bush dawn and felt the elusive quality of that air. Then you can trade the tales!

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Nov 2010

National Day of Education featuring The Bookbus!!

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

Week 4. Part B

Wednesday was a school holiday as it was National Day of Education and we were invited by the other PEA in the area, Mr Wilson, to the celebrations in his district at Madziabango Primary School. We were told to arrive at 10am and that there would 9 schools attending and each school would be presenting some kind of dance or song. Little did we know that we were going to be star attraction! When we arrived we were told to park the bus behind the VIP area and then were given seats amongst the head teachers, chiefs and other important people!

Things started surprisingly promptly at only 10.15! There were some very long speeches and then something was said in Chichewa and the only 2 words I understood were Bookbus and M’zungu! Then Douglas told us you have to get up and perform!! Now there were several thousand kids there, from preschool to secondary school and they were all staring at these M’zungus! Now talk about being thrown in the deep end!! We did a quick appraisal of the situation and decided that the only thing we could “perform” at such short notice was the banana song and that we did…but to our biggest audience yet and they were tough! A few joined in but most just stared at these crazy beings in yellow!!! I have to say it’s up there with the most embarrassing moments of my life! Then just as we sat down, there was some disco music played and we were pulled up by teachers and made to dance!! After a while some kids joined in and then it wasn’t quite so embarrassing! And just then when I thought it was over I had to make a speech!! More embarrassment, but after the banana song I could do anything!! Thanks to Catherine and Arno for all their support in this matter!!
After that we were left to watch all the schools performing and it was great, especially when we saw the kids from yesterday’s school singing. They all gave us big smiles and waves! After all the acts, more dancing, we were slowly becoming experts, and more speeches, we invited to be in the official photos, most of which we were asked to take with our cameras! Then we were invited to a classroom where we were all given the biggest chunk of bread ever and a fizzy drink. This was a real honour and it was obvious that people were pleased to have us there. Mr Wilson then wanted to show us his office and on the way there he said to me. “There are National Day of Education celebrations going on all over the country right now, but here at mone we have something special that no one else has and that is you and your Bookbus!” He was really proud that we were there in his district. So, after many more photos, everyone seemed to want to be snapped with a m’zungu and a lot more dancing, but in the middle of a crowd of kids it’s fine, it was time to leave. We gave some teachers a lift up the mountain and then we invited the 2 teachers from Masuku school for lunch, although I had to warn them that it would be a M’zungu lunch and not traditional N’shima!!

We spent the entire afternoon chatting about the differences between Malawi and the UK. There were so interested to hear about our lives. They couldn’t believe that every home has running water and electricity and the concept of the underground shocked them but the one thing they wouldn’t believe until we showed them in a book was that the Channel Tunnel actually existed! In turn they told us about different traditions in Malawi, the importance of religion and learning English and the absolute steadfast belief in witchcraft.

Thursday saw another remote school but this one was standards 1 to 8 and we were accompanied by Mr Wilson. We taught standards 8, 7 and 6 and once again we were warmly welcomed, encouraged and joined by the teachers. We witnessed grade 2 listening to a radio teaching programme which apparently most schools in the area use. Mr Wilson strode around our lessons with a clipboard asking both us and the students many questions. We taught from books about hair around the world, how to tell the time, how animals work (Did you know? The snow leopard can jump 14metres-it’s a fact!!) and the ever popular How to catch a Star. We found places on maps, played team find the flag games, made clocks, masks and star pictures! We also visited standard 1 which was being taught in a grass shelter and were sitting on small stones to stop them sitting in the dirt. On our journey back MR Wilson told us how impressed he was with our teaching methods and that we should continue the good work in his district!

Friday and our final day of teaching for a while, we went to Nankhufti Primary School. The setting was beautiful and the road, nothing more than a track with lots of steep slopes. The same old story as the whole week at the school, 6 standards and only 4 classrooms and 4 teacher, engaging and willing pupils and interested and dedicated teachers. The classrooms here only have dirt floors and no proper blackboards but the children are bright and want to learn so much. We did all our lessons with standards 5 and 6 and we had much fun, especially when Arno and Douglas showcased the TV they had made with their standard 6 pupils. During the last lesson Catherine and I were shocked to hear some children singing the banana song, now the only place they could have heard that was at the day of education, so it proves that someone had been listeneing!! They insisted on having a rendition before we last time couldn’t hurt!

So after 4 amazing weeks, the Bookbus is taking a break. We have seen and experienced so much! We have read with thousands of kids and met so many inspiring and dedicated teachers, we have seen wild game, a beautiful lake, live music, rural Malawi, bustling markets and schools fit to bursting. Everyone has taken something away with them from their experience with the Bookbus, whether it be the pupils, the teachers, the volunteers or myself. And I hope that the good work we have begun in Malawi can continue.

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Nov 2010

Off the Beaten Track!!

Posted by / in The Book Bus /

Week 4. Part A.

Our second week in Blantyre and we were heading off the beaten track. All of this weeks schools are located out in the villages, along dirt tracks that are pretty hair raising as they follow the contours of the hills! Thankfully we have our truck and our excellent driver, Douglas! One day the track we were following was so steep it looked impossible, I asked Douglas, “Are you scared?” and he just shook his head, smiled and carried on driving!

We were passing through real Malawian life everyday, seeing people hoeing their fields, pumping water, doing their laundry or carrying buckets of water, bundles of sticks or bags of flour on their heads. Rural life in Malwai is very hard and most people survive by doing some small form of agriculture. There is massive unemployment and no homes have running water or electricity. This life will become harder when the rains come as it will wash away the tracks and roads they use and turn everything into mud but it will also bring relief for their fields after months of no rain and everyone is just waiting for the first rains so they can begin planting their maize. The women here are incredibly strong, carrying a bucket of water on their head, a child on their bag and a bag of something in their arms. They are also the ones you see hoeing the fields, again usually with a baby on the back!

Monday’s school was Chipwepwete and it was only standards 1 to 6. Any children who want to continue their education them have to make the long walk to the schools located along the tarmac road, this is common place in Malawi. The teachers and pupils greeted us warmly. Here they have just over 400 learners. They have 6 classes but only 4 teachers and 3 classrooms. One class takes place under a thatched shelter, one under a large tree and one in a nearby thatched church. The whole community was so pleased to see us. Here we taught (for the first time) standards 5 and 6. The children’s English wasn’t amazing but they were so keen to try and the teachers were a huge help here, joining in and making everything along with the kids. Most of the learners didn’t know how to use the scissors or glues and they were shy at first about taking the materials but they soon got over that and there were smiles all around! We finished by congregating in the thatched shelter for some singing and reading with anyone who wanted to join in!

On Tuesday we made another journey out into the bush! This road was steeper and the track just seemed to cling to the side of the hills. The journey was incredibly rural so we were more than surprised when we arrived and found a brand new school, with great classrooms and enough desks! Not what we expected, but the headteacher explained that it had been funded by an EUprogramme a couple of years ago. So they have enough classrooms, there are 6 and this school is only standards 1 to 5 but there are 400 pupils, 5 classes but only 3 teachers and no resources. So although it may look perfect, it is far from being a reality. The welcome that we got from the 3 teachers here was so warm, they don’t get many visitors up this way! They joined in absolutely every activity that we were doing and as we did lessons with standards 4 and 5 their translations were sometimes required, especially with standard 4. But however low the level of English was the children all had such fun and so did the volunteers. We came away with a really good feeling after todays sessions. The setting of the school was breathtaking, the welcome so genuine and the kids so eager to learn, although the sad reality is that many may stop their schooling after standard 5 and if they want to continue they must face the long and steep journey to the nearest senior primary school.

The evenings at Fisherman’s rest are very peaceful and very dark. It is an excellent place to watch the sunset and to star gaze in the evening, there are no major sources of light pollution so the stars are very bright. Luckily the breeze that comes off the mountain helps to keep it a bit cooler, although the thermometer in the truck has been slowly rising since we arrived and we are now in the high30’s everyday!

Continued in next Blog.

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