The American author Mark Twain once said, “In a good bookroom you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books through your skin, without even opening them.” This idea is the driving force behind the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS), an organisation that wants every child in Pakistan to read and to dream.
It is a passion, straight from the heart, that started 35 years ago,” says ALBBS President Basarat Kazim. “We wanted to spark the imagination of children, rich and poor. We wanted to expand their horizons and have them start asking questions about the world around them.”
This vision resulted in the Alif Laila mobile library, a bus refitted to accommodate books and provide a safe and fun place for children to read. To use the bus library, children pay anywhere between 50 and 500 rupees a year, depending on their means. Inside the bus, young readers can forget about the outside world and immerse themselves in the world of the imagination.
There are only about 2,000 public and private libraries in Pakistan, of which just 4 cater to children. ALBBS aims to tackle this problem by taking books directly to young readers. “You don’t need a giant library with thousands of books,” says Kazim. “All you need is a little shelf in a mechanic’s shop.”
ALBBS libraries stock a variety of books that deal with a range of social and cultural issues, and other materials that are not strictly educational. While books are available in regional languages, the majority of their holding are in English and Urdu. They are careful about selecting books and will not stock any materials that promote intolerance, hatred or bigotry. When ALBBS works with other partners, they screen the books that will be placed in the library. “We want kids to become curious, intellectually invigorated,” says Kazim. “We want to fill cultural gaps, and build empathy and tolerance.”
In addition to their own bus library, ALBBS in partnership with USAID has set up ‘library corners’ in 75 schools in the districts of Multan and Muzaffargarh. A typical library corner consists of around 500 books and colourful cushions, and the space is decorated with posters and wall hangings. As part of this project, reading specialists are employed to train teachers in managing libraries.
More recently, to give students an all-round learning experience, ALBBS has started to establish hobby clubs which allow students to explore computers, art and crafts. With these hobby clubs, ALBBS aims to bring together children from different socioeconomic backgrounds. This is essential to the ALBBS philosophy. “We deeply believe in students learning from each other,” Kazim explains. “A child whose father has a big bank balance will have learned things a poorer child may have not, but the poor child who has to supplement his family income is far more resourceful at that age, so there is a lot they can teach each other.”
ALBBS aims to exploit every opportunity to put books into the hands of children. They have set up small libraries in a number of bastis and also have a few rickshaw libraries. They are currently working to set up community libraries, run out of people’s homes, where children can come and read and borrow books. Eight such libraries have already started functioning, with more set to open their doors in the near future.
ALBBS now want to turn the park where their bus library is parked into a model education, information and play centre. “We are confident we will get permission from the government but we probably won’t get a penny from them,” Kazim explains, “so we are trying to raise funds for this project. We want to be a beacon and see a Pakistan dotted with libraries.”
Kazim believes that the ALBBS model is easily replicable. Already she is beginning to transfer responsibility to other members of the ALBBS team, confident they will carry the work forward. “The people at ALBBS are driven and passionate,” she says. “This sort of work can only be done if people believe in it.”
“Abdul Sattar Edhi came to see the work we do a very long time ago,” Kazim recalls. “He said ‘I really love the work you’re doing but this is very hard work, an uphill task’. He said the work he does may be labor intensive but no one has an issue with people collecting bodies or taking people to hospitals. ‘You are trying to change people’s minds and not everybody is keen on that,’ Edhi said to me.”
Changing people’s minds is what ALBBS hopes to do. “We want to change attitudes and expand people’s minds,” says Kazim. “I have seen children learn to explore the world. I have heard children say that one hour in our library is the best hour of their day.”