Libraries, Livingstone style

Picture a tiny school compound with 120 ish excited children, and some ridiculous dancing by adults in yellow T Shirts! That was our farewell Book Bus reading session at Zwelopili Reading Room in Livingstone, Zambia, last Thursday. As well as our daily visits to schools each morning, we have been spending Tuesday and Thursday afternoons at libraries reading one to one with any children who turn up.

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The contrast of the 2 libraries is stark. Livingstone City Library, presumably funded by government, is an old fashioned set-up, with the main adult section shelves filled with sets of textbooks, so tidy that it seems unlikely they are ever used, and library users all appear to be tapping away on their own laptops and phones. the atmosphere is silent and not particularly welcoming. We tiptoe and whisper through the library with th children we read with, to the tiny tucked away children’sscetion, which is so jumbled up that it at least looks used. But no displays, no organisation, no colourful posters – as one volunteer commented, it is dispiriting. Anyway, we have readers, and the books once found aren’t bad, so we take tthem to the hall nextdoor where we can listen to them read, sitting on little stools. we have had about 6 to 12 kids each time, so may spend a whole hour with one. And there is no loan system, so the precious books stay in the quiet library.

Livingstone Public Library

Very different at Zwelopili, where the little school is supplemented by the Reading Room, which the Book Bus set up and found funding to build. The books were donated, so are variable in suitability, but the whole place buzzes with life and positivity. The slogans on the wall are just the start –

At our Thursday afternoon reading sessions, we regularly turned up to find over a hundred excited children in the small school yard, having been organised by the library staff in a queuing system, where some sat on mats on the ground while others were on a row of blue plastic chairs, like a doctors’ waiting room! All had been given books to read while waiting, and so were ready as soon as one of us volunteers were. Some of us sat on pairs of floor cushions inside, others on little stools in the yard, and we had 15 minutes per child, listening to them read. An hour session meant we each worked with 4 kids, so many must have missed out, which was a frustrating thought. Some small girls arrive complete with baby sister/brother on their back, and gamely read on despite fidgety younger sibling – that is real commitment!

I mentoned the Reading Room staff, who are Claudia and James, a brother and sister, nephew and neice to the school’s founder who had sadly died only a few weeks ago. They are both volunteers, and throw themselves into the work. Claudia, a tiny woman, has a huge generous personality, and controls the mass of children like a pro. She has apparently strted Saturday afternoon sessions for older readers and adults which are proving popular. The school has no electricity or water supply, so are limited to daylight hours (it gets dark soon after 6PM).

And the Reading Room is a proper library; it lends books out. Children take books home, and read as a family. One girl described reading around the table with her family, while another whose parents are busy reads to her grandma, and carries on even when grandma falls asleep. And, during our sessions, we several times had adults wandering in and reading, ignoring us, so the Reading Room seems to be a real community asset, in a pretty poor part of Livingstone

We finally come to the ridiculous dancing. At the end of our final session at Zwelopili, there was lots of singing, and kids had written us volunteers thank you letters, which were so sweet, I was fighting back the tears. John had come out to the school with us, having arrived literally 2 hours before, from Heathrow via Jo’burg – kitted out in the yellow BB T shirt, he gamely sat and read with kids. Finally, Zwelopili started the song where you have to dance … “Carol, show your friends, how to dance…”, repeated with lots of clapping until you do some sort of dance, at which they fall around laughing and cheer you on! Poor John got pressurised, so we did aa little salsa, in fact within 24 hours of arriving, he had to dance in public 3 times, and 2 different schools. And as a parting gift from the Book Bus, here is me dancing …

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