“Whatever the cost of our libraries, the price is cheap compared to that of an ignorant nation.” Walter Cronkite
1978 was the year General Zia became the president of Pakistan, but it was also the year that the Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) came into being in Lahore, proving, that there is always a brighter side to life.
You fall over a library every few miles in an educated society, but the people of Pakistan, grappling with their own crippling problems, do not miss what they never had. Libraries are conspicuous by their absencein Pakistan, creating a crucial void in our lives.
Alif Laila, an NGO based in Lahore, started life as a single library in a stationary double-decker bus. It was founded in 1978 by Nita Baker, who had been living in Lahore for several years, but left Pakistan the following year. That original bus still stands, and remains stocked with books and toys. Basarat Kazim is the current president of the society’s six-member Board of Governors, with Rabia Khan as vice president. Alif Laila is now successfully associated with several organisations including the Punjab Library Foundation, UNESCO, UNICEF, Save the Children, Toyota, Tetra Pak, ICI and others.
Basarat Kazim,the author of several award-winning books for children, donates all proceeds from her booksto Alif Laila.I visited Basarat after hours at her office in the private school she works at in Lahore.
“I was a raw recruit,” she laughed. “I didn’t know what an NGO was, although I worked with Alif Laila since it began.”
“Later, in the early 1980s when Lieutenant General Ghulam Jilani Khan was governor, I posted my children outside his residence with a petition for approval of library premises,”Basarat recalled. “We were given the library premises anda library was constructed for us in the park in Gulberg II, where our bus was parked. That became Alif Laila’s reference library.”
The park is now a children’s playground, and the old double-decker bus guardsits entrance.Its upper deck is equipped for storytelling, the lower one filled with books.It is reserved forboys and girls aged eight years and younger. There is another double-decker called Dastangou (or Storyteller) parked nearby, and this serves asAlif Laila’s mobile lending library.
Alif Laila’s reference library is alow, round building with a wraparound veranda tucked under a tangle of trees and climbers inside the park, and staffed by a full time librarian.Girls of any age and boys below 15 can use it during and after school hours.
All Alif Laila libraries are bright, colourful, andfull of children.Alif Laila’s facilities are available across the economic divide, meaning all children from government and private schoolsare able to use the facilities. Family income and education levels are divides that ALBBS aims to bridge.
On the day I visited, the children at the reference library were from a local government school. Alif Laila’s own bus had picked themup, accompanied by an attendant, and they were to bereturned to school the same way later. I met Khadija [name changed], who is eleven, and Atiya thirteen. They havefour and seven siblings respectively, all at school. Their mothers are uneducated; Khadija’s father is a salesman in a store, Atiya’s an Imam at a mosque.
I asked the girls several questions, including the cliché, “What would you like to be, when you grow up?”Instead of the typical reply of “Mein doctor banoon gi,” the Imam’s daughter said she wanted to work for the police, and her friend opted for the army.Other girls in the group talked about becoming dentists and computer programmers.
And so it appears that Basarat is succeeding in her ambition: enabling Alif Laila to “foster the thought processes of children (particularly girls), until they are able to think independently and critically; to build bridges, know their roots, and stand tall and proud.”
In that well lit circular room,with its spotless carpet, surrounded by books, games and DVDs, children, books in hand,sat on chairs near the shelves, or snuggled into a pit of large bright cushionsin the centre of the room. They told me they were able to borrow two books from the lending libraryfor a period of two weeks. The feefor the service is Rs. 500 per child, per year for private schools, and Rs. 50 for government schools. Interestingly, the record for books returned in good conditionis appreciably higher for children from underprivileged homes. Perhaps they value the facility more.
Alif Laila’s first major grant after its initial fundraising efforts was a cheque for Rs. 95,000 from the Dutch Embassy. The money was used to buy audiovisual equipment. When donations started coming in afterwards, including a grant from the Punjab government, a small Suzuki van was obtainedfor transporting children to and from the library, and Dastangobecame Alif Laila’s third main library, driving out to children in their own communities with books, storytellers and puppeteers on board. There is now also a pert little rickshaw adorned with the slogan “Read Pakistan, Read!”puttering around Lahore’sModel Colony, Shah Jamal Colony, Gulberg III and Walton, loaded with books for children.
At the request of the basti’s residents, ALBBS branched out for several years, setting up, running, and actually teaching at schools in Basti Saidan Shah in Lahore, whichdesperately needed more schools. It initiated classes from nursery to the third grade, providing activity based learning, and worked in the area for almost twenty years. Other schools were established at Bhabra and the old Walton airstrip.
“The children were very smart,” recalls Basarat, “but extremely poor. Our aim was to ensure that at least one person in each family became literate. We ran those schools until the squatter settlements were moved to make way for residential projects.”
ALBBSnow concentrates on libraries, and also runs hobby clubs for girls at their resource centre adjacent to the library park. This centre is run by donations from the Global Fund for Women. Girls come, or are brought to the centre from their schools once a week, to take part in clubs of their choice: computers, electronics, crafts and art – with digital photography in the pipeline. They learn about recycling, make little electronic toys, learn to use computers, make cards and bangles, and paint.That is Alif Laila’s mission, to provide hands-on experience to “enhance the capabilities of young women, creating in them a sense of wonder, the urge to explore, experiment, discover, understand and innovate.”
In February of this year, ALBBS extended their services to Multan and Muzaffargarh in collaboration with USAID, with the message‘Read, Lead and Succeed’. Its mobile library visits 40 schools in the area, and it has fitted another 100 schools with library corners and books.Earlier, they ran a one-year pilot project in Sheikhupura, funded by the Open Society Foundation, whereby a room in a local government school was decorated, equipped for a children’s library, and more than 3000 books provided.A mobile library ran for the duration of the project, and now, after that period, ALBBS continues to pay expenses for the library at the school.
Alif Laila is associated with the Pakistan Reading Project, a programme launched by USAID and implemented by the International Rescue Committee here in Pakistan, which fosters reading skills. So, in addition to its own libraries, ALBBS helps communities set up their own.
A conference organised by ALBBS took place in Lahore this October, entitled ‘Setting up Community Libraries for Children’.Participants from allover Pakistan shared their experiences and attended workshops and training session with the aim of setting up libraries in their own communities.Many participants represented disaster struck areas such as Baluchistan, so they were also looking for aid for their projects – disaster relief is another field in which Alif Laila participates.
A member of the International Board of Books for Young People (IBBY), Alif Laila received funds under the ‘Books Build Bridges’ programme from IBBY during the 1995 earthquake in Muzzafarabad, and the2010 floods in Sindh, and set up libraries for 110 schools in the affected region.
The conference was full of purpose and activity.Participants learnt about the therapeutic power of books (called bibliotherapy), performed skits, and took it in turns torelate personal memories oftraining to ‘de-inhibit’, so that they may use this skilllater in telling simple everyday stories to children.
There are, as they say, several ways of skinning a cat. If the goal is to improve conditions and provide a better tomorrow for our children, imposing bans and policing the streets is one way; but by far the most enduring solution is to equip young people – and especiallythe mothers of tomorrow – with the necessary skills for peace and survival, so they can be independent, confidentadvocates for change and rights – again, especially those of women and children. This is what ALBBS tries to do. Whatever it costs, it works out cheaper than the losses endured by ignorance .