UP CLOSE + PERSONAL
An Interview with Ms. Basarat Kazim, President, Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS) in Lahore, Pakistan
by Barbara Bundy, PhD, Coordinator, Books + Education, WaterBridge Outreach: Books + Water
“I wanted books to spread their magic not only in affluent communities
but in squatter colonies as well.” ~ Ms. Kazim
Thank you so much for agreeing to interview with WBO, Basarat. I’ve been wanting to ask you a number of questions since I first found out about Alif Laila four years ago through WaterBridge Outeach: Books and Water (WBO) when our organization began donating multicultural books in English to ALBBS for your main lending library for children and young adults in Lahore. Could we start off with your telling us about the founding vision of ALBBS over 35 years ago, how the Book Bus Society has evolved and grown over the years from being the first lending library in Pakistan, housed in a colorful double decker bus, to a much greater network of educational resources for children in Pakistan? And please tell us about your own involvement and inspiration for the Society since its inception.
Thank you so much Barbara for this opportunity of retelling the Alif Laila story through the WBO network. First, let me compliment you on the wonderful and useful work that your organization does and has been doing.
When the Alif Laila Book Bus opened its doors to children, and friends of children, its grounded wheels carried the responsibility of being a trail blazer and torch bearer. Pakistan had no children’s libraries at that time. If the Book Bus was to advocate and pave the way for belief in children’s libraries, it had to set a trend. And it did!
The double decker bus became a symbol… a place where children gathered because they could read books and also become part of a programme that encouraged children to own the place and carry it forward. How they did that was an education in itself! Just two examples. When the library had no funds, children brought in box loads of books they had read themselves to donate; and when one child became the recipient of a small TV and VCR, he brought it to the library to screen video films for other members. Sharing and caring took the project forward.
There has been no looking back. Once the children owned the library, the vibrance spread into all the other activities that were introduced. The Hobby Clubs were computer, art, craft, and electronics centres that encouraged the children to translate book knowledge into practice.
Books in Urdu (Pakistan’s national language) were produced so that reading became fun and enjoyable. Books and children are amongst my greatest interests and bringing the two together a passion. I became involved with Alif Laila for just that. I wanted those children who had never turned the pages of a book to do so. I wanted books to spread their magic not only in affluent communities but in squatter colonies as well.
I can look back and say we made a start.
Please tell us about some of Alif Laila’s initiatives that today are having a significant impact on reading and learning in Pakistan, and on setting the bar higher for helping children to achieve literacy, especially disadvantaged children, children in rural communities and in slum areas, and in helping to educate girls.
Alif Laila’s approach has always been whimsical and that has succeeded in touching hearts and minds. The library we run in Lahore has sparked off the setting up of many and varied libraries in the country. People have found the place so enticing that the concept of children’s libraries being trusting and congenial places has taken root. Educators visit the Alif Laila from the entire country to take back ideas and methodologies.
The mobile libraries are absolute winners. First the large Storyteller, then the smaller one and now rickshaws (three-wheeled small vehicles whose maneuverability makes it easy to enter communities where the roads are very tight and traffic is a major problem). Alif Laila can say quite happily that the mobile family of libraries has also been Pakistan’s first and strengthened by this model on the ground, many other organizations have embarked on the mobile library experiment. Many have picked up on the rickshaw project as well. Their mobility makes it easy to reach the disadvantaged communities and far flung areas.
Our project of setting up libraries in state run schools provides those schools access to supplementary reading and reference materials, and paves the way toward independent learning and problem solving. We ran this project in the Punjab in Multan and Muzaffarabad and are now working in Bannu and Dera Ghazi Khan that are very conservative, in fact rigid and backward areas. Alif Laila’s primary focus has been on girls and providing them opportunities for better education and marketable skills, which we do through the hobby clubs.
Through our Basti Schools programme, which we ran between 1992 -1997, we brought school to the doorsteps of a few thousand Bihari and Pathan children and parents who were sending their children to the streets to sell wares, or keeping them confined at home,. Suddenly they were happy to allow their daughters to get an education. When the squatter colony was dismantled in 1997, many of these children continued their learning and Pathan girls were able to convince their fathers to let them go to schools outside their community.
In awarding you one of its prized annual awards for innovation, Basarat, the WISE Foundation described the Alif Laila Book Bus Society as much more than Pakistan’s first lending library, or a resource center that offers literacy projects for young people, such as EDUNET—it referred to ALBBS as “an entire ethos” in terms of the impact it has had. I understand ALBBS has started schools and libraries also. Could you speak about this?
Sorry, Barbara. I jumped! The Basti Schools that I spoke about earlier impacted girls very strongly, hence they overlap with both this and your previous question. I can safely say that many methodologies practiced in our schools were appreciated and absorbed by countless educators and donor agencies who visited this project.
I am also happy to say that Alif Laila has set up multiple and varied libraries all over the country.
With support from IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People) we set up a library in AJK after the earthquake in 2005, again with support from IBBY and Give2Asia we set up Books Build Bridges libraries in hundreds of schools affected by terrible floods in 2010. These libraries were joyful and brought many a smile to traumatized children.
We worked closely with Save the Children and helped them run mobile libraries that had names…. Joy and Hope being amongst them. Many years later we were told that these libraries had done more for the children than repeated visits to the psychologists!
We have set up libraries in schools in Swat and Hangu, areas where terrorist attacks took place. We see the power books have to heal and allow children to think positive thoughts.
How important to the development of Alif Laila has your own engagement with books and literacy been as Pakistan’s representative IBBY and as a prize-winning author who has published nine books, received a National Book Foundation Award, and who in 2015 was the first recipient of the Annual Freedom Through Literacy Award, an international award given by Judith’s Reading Room in Pennsylvania?
Books and libraries are a belief system with me. I genuinely feel that thought cannot progress and new ideas take seed in a society that does not value books and libraries. My life’s work has centred around this thought. Being a member of IBBY has given me deep-rooted satisfaction. I have become part of a family that thinks the same thoughts, and the friends I have made encourage me to keep striving and moving on. It has also given me the opportunity to bring Pakistan’s problems to the fore and gain immense support and compassion.
Writing books for children has been a pleasure. I have tried to talk to children, not at them. It is joyful indeed to see them laugh out loud when they read some of the books, and ponder when they read others.
Winning the Judith Reading Room’s Literacy Award was an honour indeed. When the work that means so much to you wins acclaim, it strengthens both you and the work.
Basarat, you are constantly innovating as an educator—tell us about some of the innovative methods, strategies, and projects that you have pioneered at ALBBS.
Children have been the core of the work I have done. Trusting and believing in them has brought in rewards. We have always relied on the children’s advice and the strategies we have employed have been child-driven. The best thing about Alif Laila is that it belongs to the children of Pakistan.
Our latest project, which is being supported by LUMS Social Innovation Lab, is girls setting up libraries for children. We look forward to a Pakistan that is dotted with children’s libraries, large and small, where children themselves take on the responsibility of running and maintaining them. We hope this will take deep roots and provide our children the wings to fly!
Basarat, in conclusion, please comment on any aspect of Alif Laila and your own work that you feel is important for our readers to know about and that I have not asked you about.
When not for profits do work such as this, we are only acting as path finders. The idea is always that government should come forward and own the work and then replicate it. I am happy to say that children’s libraries are now being viewed seriously, and we have initiated public debate around that. However, making our work self-sustainable is a constant battle. We are able to sell our books and materials to bring in almost 50% of our shoe string budget, but we need to spend more on our marketing strategy and material production to reach the 100%.
It would help to know of ways in which we can get there. If WBO or your readers know of international grants or awards we could apply for, or people who could help with advice, that would be wonderful.
Lastly, to all those who read this, thank you so much for your time. Please visit our Facebook page: Alif Laila Book Bus Society, whenever you have a few moments to spare. It will give you an accurate glimpse into the work we do.
Click here to visit our Projects Now page for the Alif Laila Book Bus Society.
PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A CHARITABLE CONTRIBUTION TODAY TO WATERBRIDGE OUTREACH: BOOKS + WATER to support our books + water projects! Click here to be taken to our donate page. Contributions are tax deductible within the United States.
Published May 2016
Video credit: LivingLibraries