A Bus that Brings Books Offers Hope to Children in Pakistan

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But the educational system in Pakistan is so outdated and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.


About Shelly Sanders

Shelly (represented by Amy Tipton, Signature Literary Agency) is the author of THE RACHEL TRILOGY--Rachel's Secret, Rachel's Promise & Rachel's Hope (Second Story Press).Rachel's Secret received a Starred Review in Booklist and was named a Notable Read from the Association of Jewish Libraries. Rachel's Hope was shortlisted for the Vine Awards for Canadian Literature in 2016. Before turning to fiction, Shelly was a freelance journalist for the Toronto Star, National Post, Maclean's, and Canadian Living.
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