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Devon Life editor heads to central southern Africa

PUBLISHED: 12:59 07 December 2012 | UPDATED: 22:28 20 February 2013

Devon Life editor heads to central southern Africa

Devon Life editor heads to central southern Africa

Devon Life editor, Jane Fitzgerald heads to central southern Africa to work as a volunteer with Tavistock-based charity, The Book Bus


Book Bus

Jane Fitzgerald heads to central southern Africa to work as a volunteer with Tavistock-based charity, The Book Bus

Photos by Jane Fitzgerald & RACHAEL WOOD

Its 8.30am, its already pretty hot, and we are in a truck rattling along dirt roads in remotest southern Malawi. This is no ordinary truck; it is an illustrated one the colourful drawings of Quentin Blake scramble across every surface of the 30-year-old Mercedes, which is packed with books, craft equipment, paper and card. I am one of 12 volunteers working with the Devon-based Book Bus charity, and we are heading for Chimwembe School. The road is gulpingly steep, but Douglas, our driver and translator, knows it well, and the only other vehicle we meet is a bicycle. We pass hillside villages scattered with neatly thatched brick houses and catch glimpses of people doing their morning chores and setting to work a man sews on an old-fashioned treadle machine, a woman balances a forest of wood on her head, and boys work the dusty soil ready for planting maize when the rains come in a couple of weeks time.


Book Bus


Jane Fitzgerald heads to central southern Africa to work as a volunteer with Tavistock-based charity, The Book Bus

Photos by Jane Fitzgerald & Rachael Wood


Its 8.30am, its already pretty hot, and we are in a truck rattling along dirt roads in remotest southern Malawi. This is no ordinary truck; it is an illustrated one the colourful drawings of Quentin Blake scramble across every surface of the 30-year-old Mercedes, which is packed with books, craft equipment, paper and card. I am one of 12 volunteers working with the Devon-based Book Bus charity, and we are heading for Chimwembe School. The road is gulpingly steep, but Douglas, our driver and translator, knows it well, and the only other vehicle we meet is a bicycle. We pass hillside villages scattered with neatly thatched brick houses and catch glimpses of people doing their morning chores and setting to work a man sews on an old-fashioned treadle machine, a woman balances a forest of wood on her head, and boys work the dusty soil ready for planting maize when the rains come in a couple of weeks time.
As we lumber along the bumpy road we pass children walking to school. A small boy, around five years old maybe (its hard to judge ages here), strides along, exercise book in one hand, mango in the other. He waves at us, beaming, and we wave back. Theres a terrific cheer from what seems like hundreds of children as we swing into the school and clamber down from the bus. After formal introductions, we roll out our mats some beneath the shade of a tree, others on the earth floor of the classroom and settle down to work.
I am not a teacher, but I had been well prepared by our project co-ordinator, Rachael, and supported by Douglas (who translates into Chichewa when needed). Surprisingly I find working with the learners (as they are known) completely absorbing; they are so keen to learn. I would never have thought that an hours learning about colours and making rainbows could be quite so much fun. Volunteer Ingrid, a physicist from Frankfurt, makes paper darts with her group. For many, the activity of folding is unfamiliar, but they are quick to pick it up, and their planes are soon flying about the room.


I watch as the children concentrate upon their cutting out. I am surprised they can find the energy with so little in their bellies. Could it be the drive within them to make things better?




Headteacher, Mr Precious Nkupu tells me how far the children walk to school. On average, its 2.5km, he says, but some walk as far as 10km. On empty bellies, I wonder? He nods and says that 75% of his pupils dont eat any breakfast, and 100% dont have lunch as there is no provision for school lunches at Chimwembe. Weve been on the waiting list for two years, he says. So is there a meal when they get home? They might get some cassava or nsima [maize-based porridge], he adds.

This is a country where 70% of hospital beds are occupied by HIV/AIDS patients, so I ask to what extent this rural community is affected. Mr Precious says that around 25% of children in his school have lost one parent, 15% two parents and are being cared for by a grandparent or other family member, and 2% are looking after themselves. I ask if he knows who these children are. He says he does.



Malawi is the 13th-poorest country in the world, with an average literacy rate of 63%. Despite free primary schooling for all children, teachers struggle to improve the countrys education standards. Class sizes are huge and resources scarce: Malawian schools average less than one textbook per student.

The children concentrate hard upon their books, cutting out and writing. I am surprised they can find the energy to concentrate with so little in their bellies. I conclude it could be the drive within them to make things better.

The morning speeds by and soon we are back at our base at Fishermans Rest. Set in 50 acres of parkland on the edge of an escarpment, the lodge where we stay overlooks the astonishingly beautiful Great Rift Valley. We share rooms, the cooking and a few household chores. Rachael buys food from the local market, and availability can be limited, but we manage to come up with pretty delicious meals. We eat in the cool of the evening leisurely, convivial affairs around a long table on the terrace.

Water and electricity is intermittent, but we manage. Being in Africa is all about being resourceful. One of the other volunteers, Helen, teaches us how to trace the old-fashioned way (there is no photocopier), and we work into the night writing out worksheets by hand.

Mornings and evenings I swim in the pool, shaped like the map of Africa, and look up through branches of a flame tree, and across the valley past smoky mauve mountains to the Shire river valley.

A short walk down the hill from our lodge is a tea room, where you can sip tea and eat cake while watching the antics of the monkeys.

For me, the idea of living and working with strangers was a bit of a worry, but as it turns out, I find myself in the company of a delightful bunch of individuals who all get on incredibly well. We include gap-year students Kate (UK) and Lara (Germany); Tom, Pam and their three children (US), who are taking a year out; retired language teachers Helen and Jeli (UK); Andy and Diane (UK), who work for Parcel Force and M&S; and scientist Ingrid (Germany).

Most were going on to further adventures, either on safari or heading for Lake Malawi. Mark Davison from Venture Co the Tavistock adventure travel company who run the logistical side of The Book Bus has had many years of working as a guide in Africa, and is a whizz at creating tailor-made trips, seeking out the best places and seeing to every detail of your stay.

Volunteers pay for their flights and for their time with The Book Bus, and their contributions are vital to continuing the work of the charity. But what better way to get such an insight into a country, its people and culture? I would go again like a shot and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone. Before I left for the second stage of my journey (see Januarys issue), the group arranged to meet up again in Malawi in 2014. But Im not sure I can wait that long.


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