Imagine a bus filled with fascinating books going from street to street. Everywhere it stops, scores of children scramble to sit inside, where a kindly soul reads stories to them. Not a fever-dream, but reality, thanks to Alif Laila Book Bus Society (ALBBS), an organisation that aims to inspire the imagination of children through the love of reading. Alif Laila was founded in 1978 by Dr Juanita Baker, an American living in Pakistan at the time. With a membership of Rs 10 per annum, Alif Laila focused on children who had no exposure to books, and was later handed over to Basarat Kazim, now the heart and soul of the enterprise.
“At the time, I was a young mother of two children, and believed books were the best thing for a child’s intellectual development. I strongly felt I should dedicate as much time as I possibly could in trying to provide books to children across the country and soon it became my life’s work”.
Alif Laila started with mobile libraries in Suzuki vans and even rikshaws in the early 1990s. In 2020, in collaboration with the Female Education Trust, Alif Laila started Camel Libraries - books transported by camels, seven of which are located in Balochistan and Thar, and two bike libraries. Alif Laila also produce children’s books, invest in ‘green projects’, conduct teacher trainings (creativity workshops on how to make teachings more attuned to 21st century trends) and run hobby clubs. Female students from government schools are taught IT, photography, arts and crafts and gardening, all aimed at encouraging entrepreneurship skills and mindsets.
However, every fairytale has a villain, doesn’t it? How does Kazim see books surviving in the digital age of browsers and e-readers? In her view, “the feel of a book engages all the human senses; this cannot be replicated electronically. Nothing will take away from a book that you can hold, hug and love.”
When asked whether traditional school systems stifle a child’s imagination rather than let it run free, she replies, she would not go that far, but creativity does need to be encouraged in schools. “Project-based learning plays a role here, as children should be independent learners. It is important to enter a child’s word – and give them the opportunity to read words and create images pictures. This will spark their imagination like nothing else.”
Regarding the organisation’s sustainability, Kazim says, “we have always been as poor as church mice. Just as every person has a destiny, so too do organisations - ours seems to be a problem solver and a quick and creative thinker – the same traits we wish to inculcate in the children we serve. We work hard developing volunteers and have a lot of donations coming in, especially in the form of books. Our goal is to dot Pakistan’s map with libraries. If are ready you to start a library with a few books or spend half an hour every day sitting in a park reading to children, or start a book club where you live, we would like to help you. We live in a beautiful country - let’s make it more beautiful!”
For adults struggling to learn or improve their reading, Kazim says that “to become a reader, pick up a book that interests you. Set targets because it is a self-improvement task. Forming a habit is important. With children, surround them with books and they will pick them up. Read with them and TO them.”
Talha bin Hamid is an accountant by day and an opinionated observer of pop culture, an avid reader, a gamer and an all-around nerd by night. firstname.lastname@example.org.