By JANE DOWNING
“You’ll be my friend, won’t you?” asked the little girl seriously as she looked up and grasped my hand. It wasn’t so much of a question as a demand, and if she hadn’t looked so serious I would have laughed. But my years of teaching had taught me never to argue with a girl on a mission so from that moment on Lonely – pronounced Ronery – and I were firm friends.
But Lonely wasn’t one of my usual students. She was a child I met while volunteering for reading charity The Book Bus in Malawi—a country where more than half of the population lives below the poverty line. And working with her and the others has changed my life forever.
I first started teaching children who had been excluded from school three years ago. I’ve always been someone who liked a challenge and after going through difficult times myself in my early 20’s I wanted to be able to help others make the most of their lives. But I still felt I wanted to give something more.
That was when I found out about the Book Bus. The drawings by Quentin Blake, a trustee of the charity, are what first caught my eye on the website as his illustrations of Roald Dahl’s stories were some of my favourites growing up. But as I learnt more about how the bus tries to use literacy to help improve children’s confidence, it chimed so deeply with why I became a teacher I was convinced. I decided then and there to give up everything and volunteer.
Months of scrimping, saving and planning followed and I was forced to move house to save money. Then suddenly November was upon me and it was time to go.
I had decided to go to the Book Bus’s Malawi project after reading it described as the ‘warm heart of Africa,’ but as I got closer to the airport I started to get cold feet. What was I doing, going somewhere I knew nothing about all alone? My best friend Katie, who was driving me, must have sensed my fear because just then she turned, looked me straight in the eye and simply said ‘you’ve got the skills Jane.’ I was off.
On the first Monday we visited a local school and I was shocked. There were no books, no classrooms and many of the children were forced to sit on bricks on the floor. Because the school had no free meals the children, although absolutely wonderful, were exhausted and hungry and it showed in their eyes. This is a country were almost half of children under five are stunted because of poor nutrition. It was a wake-up call to the tremendous need they face every day.
It was there that I first met Ronery and her friends. One afternoon they came jostling for my attention and even though I knew they weren’t meant to be in my class, I couldn’t resist. It didn’t take long before I could see how much more confident they were without boys around. Some of them were even smart enough to go to university and I told them so. But in a country where just 16% of girls finish primary school that hope is a long way away.
Returning home was difficult and since then I’ve been working as a supply teacher. I’ve moved house and am now thinking about how best to fundraise for The Book Bus. My time in Malawi was literally the trip of a lifetime but it was more than that too – it has changed my life forever.
Jane Downing is a 29-year-old self-proclaimed “teaching ninja” from Cheshire, U.K. who teaches everything from yoga to bike maintenance to young people who have been excluded from mainstream schools. An avid traveler, Jane has roamed many corners of the earth and describes herself variously as “positive, calm and motivated” and “the female Peter Pan.”
To read more about The Book Bus Charity or to make a donation click here.