In this arid Pakistan province, Roshan the camel brings the world to children missing school due to the COVID-19 pandemic
Roshan’s even toes sink into the sand, dodging scree as he plods along the expansive plains towards Mand, a small town in southern Balochistan bordering Iran. The camel passes sights that belong to a medieval play — small houses, their doorways covered in hessian sacks, pepper the hillside; lone trees stand scattered; and the only colour in the dun landscape is from intricately painted Bedford trucks on the highway and the children dressed in bright salwar kameezes racing to meet him.
Roshan’s saddle panniers hang low with books that bring both cheer and a peek into the world outside to these children living in Pakistan’s most impoverished province, which has low literacy rates and has been battling insurgency for over 20 years. COVID-19 is the latest deterrent but that has not stopped the cud-chewing Roshan from making weekly visits to villages carrying English, Urdu and Balochi books for children aged three to 15, as part of the Camel Library Project.
When the pandemic closed schools, Zubaida Jalal, a federal minister and Rahima Jalal, a school head-mistress, thought of using camels to distribute books in this desolate terrain with little Internet access.
The sisters reached out to the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) and Female Education Trust, two NGOs working for female literacy. Judith’s Reading Room was the first donor and the project was launched in October 2020 across Mand, Gwadar and Tharpakar, Sindh. Murad Ali, Roshan’s herder, had him togged out in colourful buntings and brought him around to help.
Basarat Kazim, president of ALBBS that donated the books for the project and an author of children’s books, speaks on the Society’s journey, and giving children a sense of the ‘normal’ in these difficult times. Excerpts from an email interview:
How did ALBBS begin?
It was started in 1978 by Dr Juanita Baker, an American living in Pakistan at the time. Till then, there were no children’s libraries in the country, and this stationary double-decker bus won everyone’s hearts. It is symbolic of the children’s library movement in Pakistan. The outreach is through libraries and mobile libraries in schools, distribution of 100-book box libraries to celebrate IBBY’s [International Board on Books for Young People] work in Pakistan and bus, rickshaw, camel and bike libraries.
How do you ensure that children from disadvantaged sections understand the books they are reading? Are there guides?
The project caters to children from all sections of society with a mission to create understanding. Our funds are however concentrated on the financially disadvantaged. We have developed a reading assessment sheet and facilitators are available to support the children. Imagination and problem solving skills need to be enhanced. Only then will education in our part of the world be worthy of children.
Where do you source books from?
We buy books from publishers in Pakistan, who also donate periodically. Book donations have come in from OUP, Maqbool Books, Book Group to support our IBBY libraries (680 in all). Hoopoe Books and Big Bad Boo have been magnanimous donors. Book drives in schools and children donating books they have read is a common feature.
Given the sub-continental culture, do more girls drop out from the reading habit, especially in rural areas?
If they read less it’s only because they don’t have the opportunity. Within our projects we notice a great leaning of girls to read and excel.
Tell us about your rickshaw and camel projects
Rickshaw libraries are very exciting. These colourful three-wheelers can reach children and schools in narrow alleys. Running them is cost effective too.
Camels are such gracious, eco-friendly animals. Through the Camel Library Project, we wanted children to value them for the fantastic service they provide. The ALBBS remains responsible for designing the library and supplementary material that goes with it like puppets, games and Tech Bag.
We also give each camel a name. Chirag and Raunaq are the other camels.
How did you zero in on Murad and Roshan?
The organisation we partnered with in Mand, the Female Education Trust, earmarked a young man, Sana to help find a camel herder, who would be willing to do this. That is how Murad came on the scene. We named his camel Roshan so that the children could relate to him more.
The Female Education Trust was the first implementing partner. Ali Bano Foundation runs the project in Tharparkar. Rotary Sunset Millennium and Sahil Welfare provided the funds for Chirag, the Munir Babar Memorial Library supports Raunaq, and Baamsaar and Rotaract Club implement both projects in Gwadar