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“Ma’am, can I get another one?” A shy smile creeps across Kgomotsego’s face as she begs me to let her in my office so she can check out a new book to read. She walks out triumphantly, clutching Dr. Seuss’ Oh the Places You’ll Go before being shadowed back into my office by a gaggle of giggling grade six girls eager to lay their hands on books. Each child peeks at their toes or back at their friends, snickering their way through English greetings and attempting to get away with requests in Setswana, “Ma’am, nkadime buka,” One glance at my incredulous face and English bubbles through along with tales of the last book they read and how they learned about libraries or pirate ships or sneaky crocodiles.
From the moment I could read I devoured every book I could lay my hands on, slipping into Narnia or becoming best friends with Hermione Granger. Books have always been my favorite escape and a constant coping mechanism throughout my Peace Corps service through which I have powered through 130 books to date.
Watching learners eager to read stuck reading the same stories in their rainbow workbooks or textbooks irked me. These books didn’t provide the same interesting, culturally relevant, and eye-opening tales spun in children’s books. Over the course of my service I have devoted myself to procuring books for my school’s mini library. By engaging with organizations like Nal’i Bali, Biblionef, and Darien Bookaid I have been able to secure books that span reading abilities, languages (English, Setswana and isiXhosa), and that provide both windows and mirrors for students to see characters that both look like them and who push them to think critically about worlds unlike their own.
Every day at break I am swarmed with children seeking a book to read and upon walking out of my office I find learners lined up like ducks on a bench, noses deep in a book and blissfully unaware of the chaotic nonsense swirling around them. Sure, books help learners develop language and literacy skills, help them improve reading comprehension, and challenge them to learn about new subjects, but books are also an escape. In much the same way that I curl up with Cheryl Strayed in Wild to breathe in the cool air of the Pacific Northwest and feel the strength of powerful women mucking their way through tough stuff, my kids dig into books where girls are star soccer players and boys develop artistic skills.
By developing a mini library I help provide kids with a safe space to come and chat in English, a place free from corporal punishment and a place they can pack in their bags and hide away in no matter the reality at home.