The call comes in at seven thirty in the morning. I click ‘answer with video’ and a fraction of a second later I’m facing a group of children, mostly girls, in Lahore, Pakistan. It’s four thirty in the afternoon on a very hot July day, and the children are fidgety in their seats. A couple of little girls in jeans and t-shirts giggle and cover their mouths. If I saw my face on a ten-foot wide screen, I’d laugh, too, or maybe cry.
As the author of a young adult book, I’ve been asked to participate in the Alif Laila Library’s Storyteller program. Using Skype, I begin to tell Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree, one of my favorite books; written with such an eloquent simplicity, I hope the children, who are learning English, will understand the words and the underlying message. This library was created by Basarat Kazmi, who started the first lending library in Lahore, Pakistan in 1978—the Alif Laila Book Bus Society. Located in an engineless bus, the regular seats were removed, bookshelves were installed, and colorful murals brightened the walls.
“There are no libraries in schools here and many children cannot afford to buy books,” she explains. “I wanted to bring children and books together to expand their worlds and introduce them to new ideas.”
Kazmi, who refers to the Alif Laila Book Bus Society as her “mission in life,” did not stop at books. Since government-run schools have few extra-curricular activities, she set up various clubs at a separate resource center. Students at nearby schools had access, some for the first time, to computer instruction, electronics, photography, crafts, and carpentry. Today, Alif Laila Book Bus Society has grown enormously, with a bus that takes children to and from school to the library or resource center, and they’ve run small informal schools in Lahore’s squatter colonies.
But the educational system in Pakistan is so outdated and
ineffective, that the overall impact of the Alif Laila Book Bus Society is
like trying to plant trees in a drought. Though the state provides a free
education for children ages five to sixteen, Pakistan has one of the
highest illiteracy rates in the world. According to the OECD’s 2009
Global Education Digest, just 6.3 percent of Pakistanis were university
grads as of 2007.
Basarat attributes this lack of success, in part, to the archaic
teaching methods employed that include rote learning, antiquated
textbooks, and the cane as punishment. And gender disparity is a big
issue: the 2009 literacy rate for males was sixty-nine percent but the
rate for females was a mere forty-five percent. The Taliban enforcement
of a complete ban on female education in the Swat District has had a
direct impact on female education, with about 400 schools that had
40,000 girls enrolled forced to shut down. Even worse, almost 200
schools have been bombed by militants, leaving even more children
without a place to learn.
In the midst of all this chaos and strife, the Alif Laila Book Bus
Society seems even more like a symbol of hope, a sign that things can
improve for children in Pakistan. Mona Breen is a perfect example—she
started using the Book Bus Society as a child, and is now a teacher in
the library. A pretty young woman with gentle eyes and an endearing
smile, she has organized my Skype session with the students.
“I am a success story of Alif Laila, she tells me proudly during our
first meeting over our computer screens. Her English is strong, from
studying computer science after high school, she tells me, and like
Basarat, Breen displays a copious passion for her job and the library,
which has surpassed the Punjab Public Library in terms of usage.
But immense growth doesn’t come without problems, and the
biggest one facing Alif Laila Book Bus Society today is obtaining
up-to-date resources and books. Basarat is in the midst of trying to find
an economical way to ship books from North America to Pakistan, which
is very expensive.
When I finish reading The Giving Tree, the children clap
enthusiastically but are shy about asking questions. I ask them what the
tree gave to the boy. Breen echoes my question and someone calls out,
“apples.” Another person says “branches.” I tell them that the tree gave
everything it had to the boy, including a stump on which to sit when the
boy became an old man.
Breen asks the children if they understand and they nod
earnestly. Then she tells me that the children will now paint pictures of
trees in honor of the story. As we wave goodbye, I see how happy the
children are and how they understood the story as easily as if it had been
read in their own Urdu language. I think about how Basarat Kazmi is
like a human giving tree, how she has devoted herself in so many ways
to enhance education in Pakistan, to foster a lifelong love of books and
reading, and I hope that she is able to continue giving and that children
in her programs continue to be happy.