Sunday, January 29, 2012

Excuse Me, I'm Trying to Read: School Author Visits

In a week, I'll be visiting four schools in Maryland:

February 6, Monday: Greenbelt Elementary
February 7, Tuesday: Red House Run Elementary
February 9, Thursday: Colgate Elementary
February 13, Monday: Mars Hills Elementary

I'm so looking forward to sharing the book, Excuse Me, I'm Trying to Read, to students, teachers, and staff at all of these schools, and talking about writing and publishing. The book was published independently early last year and will be launched in March 2012 by Charlesbridge Publishing in Seattle at the NAESP Conference. What fun!

Besides speaking to classes at these four schools, I hope to meet with some young writers individually to talk about the writing process and share our work in Mozambique with the non-profit Books for Kids Africa. I miss having Lehla Eldridge, the author and a good friend, with me--her illustrations are delightful and never fail to make children laugh. We're keeping our fingers crossed that there will be so much demand for the book that she'll come over from England in the fall and together we'll visit schools sharing writing and illustrating workshops.

I'm especially looking forward to visiting Greenbelt Elementary where my own three children attended school way back in 1995 - 1996 and where a good friend, Beth Novick, still teaches sixth grade. Another special treat is a visit to Meg Wall's fourth grade at Red House Run Elementary. Meg is a close friend who goes way back to Peace Corps days in Costa Rica in 1980. We stay in close touch so I don't have to worry about not recognizing her!

Check back here next week and I'll share more about the school visits. See you soon!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Light and Beauty

There is a special light that photographers call magical—when the sun is setting and surrounds everything with a soft glow. It’s also present in the early morning hours as two of these photos attest. In one, Anita and Artimisa are clothed in capulanas to keep warm in the cool morning air. In the other, children carry rolled-up esteiras, woven mats used as bedding and floor mats, to sell in the market in a larger town nearby. The third photo is of little Alfonso sleeping in Lehla's arms, oblvious to everything but a feeling of comfort and safety. Oh, so much beauty!

Hats -- Beauty, Creativity, and a Sense of Humor

As these photos will attest, we encountered many interesting hats in Mozambique--some that made us giggle and caused the wearer to smile as well and some that struck us as adding a touch of beauty to often drab surroundings. Cereal box hats and coconut tree bark hats to protect from the sun, tall funny hats to draw attention to a seller’s wares, and beautifully arranged cloth hats to decorate the wearer—we were struck by Mozambicans creativity and inventiveness!

Monday, December 7, 2009

Strong, Steady, Radiant Women and Girls of Mozambique!

Though their lives are often precarious and full of hard physical work, we encountered joy as well in getting to know some strong, beautiful women (young and old) in rural villages in Mozambique. Women and girls here have a difficult life with little access to schooling, medical care, and basic needs we take for granted like electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, you name it—but those we met managed to welcome us with open arms, cook amazingly tasty vegetarian meals with food they harvested from their machambas (garden plots) in the early wee morning hours after an hour walk from their homes.

They also maintained spotless yards swept clean of leaves, insects, animal waste, and other debris, nursed babies while walking and reading, cooked over hot outdoor fires in wilting heat and humidity, hauled heavy water on their heads from nearby pumps, and often managed to still look radiant in colorful capulanas (traditional wrap around skirts) at the end of the hard long workday. To be fair, we saw the very human side of such misery but the women we met were strong, solid providers struggling against difficult odds, as women do all over the world.

In the middle of a heavy daily routine to maintain their households, many women still managed to visit the inauguration of the mobile lending library, as photos on our webpage will attest (see the slide show on the home page). They danced to welcome us, laughed heartily at the story we read aloud, joined in enthusiastically to tell the story, and struggled to sound out words in books to read to themselves, to their children, and to their women friends. Though initially the project was about getting children excited about reading, we realize that it is just as important to reach mothers and fathers and provide them with opportunities to improve, and fall in love with, reading. Not only can it change their lives through self-education but it can help ensure that they value, and encourage, the same skill for their own children.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Fernando from Vinho, Gorongosa – A Young Man with Big Dreams

Fernando, sixteen years old, met us when we crossed the river between Gorongosa and Vinho, the village where he lives. He dreams of becoming a guide in Gorongosa Park when he is older. His eagerness to learn shines from his eyes and is evident in his diligent studying of English which he speaks well. He travels weekly to attend eighth grade in the town of Gorongosa, returning home to Vinho on the weekends to help his family and serve as a liaison with Gorongosa.

Loading the box of books on the back of his bike, Fernando accompanied us to the Vinho school where we presented the Books for Africa Friends of Reading Network and mobile lending library. He was so proud of becoming one of the first “Friends of Reading” in Vinho (see him in the photo with his book bag of ten books). Since we left Gorongosa five days ago, he has used a friend's phone to call me daily to let me know which books he has finished. It is individuals like this, who despite their difficult life circumstances, jump at opportunities presented to them—and getting books to their remote villages is one way of helping present those opportunities!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Books by Four Wheel Drive, by Foot, and by Dug-Out Canoe!

We have been struck by the extreme poverty in the rural villages we’ve visited since leaving Nwadjahane, and equally struck by the friendliness of everyone we meet—it seems the more remote a community, the more friendly and warm the inhabitants! Accompanied by two jovial community Gorongosa outreach staff, Domingos and Verniz, and Muero, the driver, Lehla and I traveled over the past three days down miles of dirt roads and mountain paths by car, walked by foot, and even crossed a river by dugout canoe, carrying books and materials to share the Books for Kids Africa Friends of Reading Network with adults and children living in the area.

As in our visit to Nwadjahane, the giggles and smiles that broke the shyness and reticence of community members by Lehla’s funny animal impersonations were heartwarming. Children, and sometimes women, often handled books with unfamiliarity—holding them backwards and upside down—but all seemed eager to participate. Unlike in Nwadjahane, children here, living so close to Gorongosa National Park, did seem familiar with native African wild animals like elephants, crocodiles, and hippopotamuses. Books in the program capitalize on those interests, and include stories from other cultures, easy reading picture books, life in traditional villages, word identification books, and simple chapter books. Because books are mixed by interest and reading level, a whole family with different reading levels and interests can enjoy the ten books borrowed each week.

Along the way to one of the villages, we passed a well-built community library. The library was clean and neat with several tall bookcases but it was unattended and had few books, among them perhaps two dozen children books. As Domingos said, our mobile library where books travel directly to people in their homes has great potential. Adults do not have to travel far and they can borrow books at convenient times from the local coordinator and read at their leisure in their homes. It is a simple project but the multiplier effect has vast potential.

Sometimes it is hard to promote a project that does not directly address such basic needs as food, medical care, jobs, and transportation—but I am always struck by the eagerness that people with little schooling and desperate living situations have for learning. They want information, they want their children to learn to read so they can go further in school and get better jobs, they want to continue to learn themselves though they cannot go to school. Though we are fulfilling a less tangible basic need, learning to read and falling in love with reading and learning expands the mind and expands the imagination—these books are bringing hope and the light of knowledge to remote communities, families, and individuals.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Bringing Books to Nwadjahane

We inaugurated the first community lending library in Nwadjahane on Wednesday, Nov. 25, greeted joyfully by women in colorful capulanas ululating and dancing in front of a large welcoming crowd of around 150 men, women, and children. I read The Little Red Hen to a very receptive audience but it was Lehla who stole the show, receiving huge belly laughs for her delightful dramatization of a library user and her in depth interpretation of a gossipy goose, a vain cat, and lazy, good for nothing dog! The audience mimicked her every step and motion and even actions which were not part of the scenario—and filled the air with honks, squaws, meows, and barking. Their songs of gratitude and welcome overwhelmed us and we felt very special indeed.

The leader of the village stood up afterwards and spoke of the importance of this project—how it would expand children’s minds and better prepare them for school and how important the program is for adults as well. Eleven adults (six women and five men) signed up as the first library users, “Rede de Amigos da Leitura” (Friends of Reading Network), and took with them ten books each in the “bibliosacolas” (bookbags) to their homes to read themselves, to their own children, and to neighboring children. After a week they can exchange the books for ten more. The photos of people reading are worth a hundred words. For more photos, please see the album Nwadjahane Inauguration on our Facebook page, Books for Kids Africa.

It is hard to describe just how important this project is…at times it has seemed so small but a visit to a community like Nwadjahane highlights the far-reaching impact this simple project can have. We could practically feel the pride and joy with which people welcomed the project, chose books to read, and signed up to take books to their homes. It was clear that people hunger for knowledge and though schools are instrumental and crucial for a community’s growth, self-education through a community lending library has the potential to dramatically change people’s lives.

Evidence of potential connections were everywhere: women sitting together while one women read out loud and others commented and pointed to pictures, a serious man with glasses sitting quietly and reading non-stop for the entire hour we were there, children laughing and showing each other pictures from the stories they were reading, and others struggling with what appeared dogged determination to read, sounding out each word slowly and cautiously. What joy to have the opportunity to participate in such a wonderful undertaking!!

It feels right that we initiated the first Friends of Reading Network in the birthplace of Eduardo Mondlane, the revolutionary hero who believed that education was the key to development and nation-building. To parphrase him when he cryptically spoke to the people of Mozambique during the fight for independence: We are no chickens. We are eagles. Spread your wings and fly!

A special thanks to Nyeleti and Janet Mondlane, Eduardo Mondlane’s daughter and wife, for providing lodging and a lovely lunch and breakfast, to Maria and Arlindo and all their family (Anita, Artemisia) who served as guides to the community for us and cooked such wonderful local cuisine, to Sonia who volunteered to serve as the first facilitator, to all the community leaders, to the hundreds of children and mothers and fathers who welcomed us with open arms, and to sweet little Alfonso whose laughter was so contagious! And of course, to my delightful colleague and traveling companion, Lehla Eldridge for accompanying me and so fully embracing the project in every way!