Lilian pulled a book from her bag and cradled the ragged paperback in her hand.
“It’s like slipping inside someone’s skin,” she whispered. “You can be anyone. Do anything …” Lilian so badly wanted her father to understand. But how to explain that being in the middle of a story was like being everywhere and nowhere at the same time?
- I Am Change
Growing up in Australia, I stepped into the magic of stories every day, shedding my skin to try out different lives to test who I might be. In novels I discovered that girls could be heroes. And the more I read the larger my world grew. I had stories to make sense of the universe, atlases to reveal whole continents to me and dictionaries to add to my collection of words.
For too many girls in Uganda, books are a luxury. “Books,” they told me, “are more than just things made of paper and ink.” To turn the pages of a book meant gaining a vocabulary. It meant mastery of the English language and that meant a job. Which meant quieting their growling stomachs and paying for their siblings to stay in school.
I saw their eyes light up as they turned the pages of picture books and tattered paperbacks. And I saw them hug the books to their chests before handing them back to their teachers. They were used to returning books.
“We aren’t allowed to take them home,” they explained. Their classrooms and school libraries - if their school had a library - were often almost empty, the books too few to be given out on loan. I didn’t ask if they could afford to buy books; they couldn’t afford lunch.
And they were the fortunate ones, the girls who were still in school and hadn’t been married off. Of the thirty girls I met in Uganda in 2015, only six had made it to high school, all of them on scholarships. Most were orphans. They lived in concrete boxes in the city’s slums, walking an hour to school on an empty stomach and they considered themselves blessed. They were lucky to be learning, they told me. “If you can read and write you can get a good job and you won’t be hungry.” Every bit of knowledge they could wring from their teachers and from books was a step away from the slums.
I asked the girls what made them smile. There was so many sad stories, I wanted to know what brought them happiness, because they were so much more than poor. They were fierce, determined, warm and generous. And they were hungry to learn.
“Light bulbs,” they told me. “A second pair of underwear. A pair of shoes.” But mostly it was books.
Books were their escape, not just from a difficult day, but from a hard life. I talked to girls who walked through the bush to get to school, risking sexual assault and their rejection of their families; girls who sat cross-legged on the dirt floors of their classrooms while their brothers sat at desks; girls who sold their bodies for textbooks and washed their neighbours’ clothes to pay for excursions.
Reading wasn’t just about being transported to a different time and place. For the girls in the slums and villages of Uganda, books were their ladder out of poverty, a passport to a better life. Because it’s hard to escape abuse if you can’t read and write.
So what can we do?
We can give girls books.
When I posted #giveagirlabook on @authorsuzyzail a few months ago, calling on people during Book Week to spare a thought for the millions of girls who dream of owning a book, the response was impassioned and immediate. People wanted to give their pre-loved books to girls who couldn’t afford them. I just had to find a way to get their books to Africa. And that’s when I discovered Australian Books for Children of Africa, a non-profit organisation who ship books to impoverished schools. To date, they’ve sent over 250,000 books to empower children through education. And now that we’ve teamed up with them, we can get girls in Africa precious picture books, novels, dictionaries, history books and atlases.
Click HERE to find out how to donate your new or second hand books to girls who can’t otherwise afford them and mention #giveagirlabook to earmark your donation for girls in need.
Those books your kids read that they’ll never re-read? Donate them. The childhood books you keep boxed up in the garage because you can’t bring yourself to throw them out? Let a girl in Africa turn the pages in wonder as you once did. If you’re a member of a local library, find out what they do with their old books. Your child’s school? They have to cull their library collection every year. Send them the link.
We might not have the power to change the world, but we can change one person’s world…starting with a book.