Jane Goodwin writes about The Botswana Bookworm
‘That sounds a good idea, can you tell us a bit more about it?’ We were at the PTA’s AGM in late March 1983 and I was elated to find that both parents and staff were interested in the suggestion of running a school bookshop. Nothing unusual in that, you say. Well, the slight difference was that the school, Northside Primary School, is on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, in Gaborone, the tiny capital of Botswana. It is a private English medium school in which only about a third of the 500 pupils are first language English speakers. About half the children are Batswana, the rest coming from between 40 and 50 different countries. Gaborone has one main bookshop which, all things considered, carries quite a reasonable selection of books, but there still seemed to be a need for other opportunities for children to buy books, and the small committee which was formed immediately was lucky to have the backing, help and encouragement of the school head and staff.
The major problem in a country so far from the U.K. was actually getting hold of new books – they took months to arrive. We could have obtained them more quickly from South Africa (Botswana imports almost everything, including electricity, from the Republic) but books in South Africa are notoriously expensive – sometimes twice the UK price – so we preferred to wait and pay less. Meanwhile, we needed to catch and hold the interest of the children, so decided to buy and sell second hand books. The headmistress set the ball rolling by asking for gifts of books for the first session. The money made from these gave us a nice little float, which was augmented weekly by further buying and selling. Trade in both second hand books and comics was brisk for the first few weeks. We provided a rudimentary activity corner where book tokens could be designed and ran a weekly story session. A final date for the book token competition was set, each of the winners receiving a copy of their design to spend in the bookshop. Printing costs being high, we ran off the tokens on the school photocopier, folding the A4 paper into four afterwards. Although they, were only in black and white, the book tokens proved quite effective and were frequently sold as birthday gifts.
Choosing the new books was particularly exciting as we had very few current catalogues. To have written to the U.K. for copies would have used two or three weeks of valuable time, so we began with what we knew. I went through my own children’s book shelves, making a note of all the books they recommended. Most of the rest we did from memory, “What was the name of that book about the hen who went for a walk …?” and “Can you remember who publishes the little Paddington books?” (Paddington was being shown on TV just then). Finally we produced a list of about 400 books, for some of which we ordered duplicate copies.
Our friendly supplier sent off the list post haste to the UK but it seemed an eternity before any of them arrived. Everytime I had a free moment I would rush down to the airport where he had his “shop” in a tin hut, to check on progress. Eventually the first lot appeared, but before we could sell them we not only had to catalogue them but also to price each one. Our supplier allowed us 15% discount, two thirds of which we decided to pass onto the children. On top of those calculations, we had, of course, to convert from pounds to pulas. However, we managed to get it all done for the first opening after the half term break. The room was bedlam, and almost all our first load of about 200 books was sold :- immediately. My son and I quickly wrote out another order, hoping that in the meantime more of the first order would arrive.
At this stage I came across a publisher’s representative who had just arrived in Botswana. She offered a 35% discount on the South African prices of all her firm’s books. Unfortunately, most of their publications are hardbacks, but it seemed a good idea to order some for the forthcoming Open Evenings. When the first Open Evening arrived, we were besieged by parents and children desperate to buy the hardback reference books as well as new and second hand paperbacks. The queue at the cash desk stretched across the stage and back again, the caretaker had to delay closing-up time and we sold about 250 new books together with an uncountable number of second hand ones. The next night was not quite so crowded but we still managed to sell another 100 new books. In fact, during the second day, I frantically scoured Gaborone for books to sell, since we were still awaiting the remainder of our first order. In desperation, our normal supplier very kindly arranged for me to select books from the shelves of the main town bookseller, passing on to us the whole of his own 10% discount.
By the time of the Open Evening we had worked out a regular system for cataloguing books and recording sales, had been given a loan by the PTA to pay for some bookshelves (to be made locally from SBA plans) had held a second competition and had held a Parents’ Information Evening. At this event, parents were told about the aims of the bookshop and a little about the types of books suitable for different age groups. For the first term our bookshop (called, of course, the Bookworm) opened for an hour every Friday afternoon, manned by a variety of volunteer parents. This fitted in with the school timetable as children attend lessons only in the mornings, returning in the afternoons for a variety of voluntary activities. We also experimented with a Saturday morning opening, to accommodate working parents who wanted to come with their children. There were plans for further evening openings, especially before Christmas, when it was hoped to have a good selection of Christmas books available.
We probably had more problems in running a bookshop in Botswana than other people do in the UK, but the rewards, of seeing children buying and enjoying a much wider selection of books than most of them had been used to make it well worthwhile. We still provided them with Asterix, The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew (the current favourites) but gave them others to choose from as well. What children in Botswana now need are more books set in the country. We tried to order multicultural books for the Bookworm but many of these have little relevance to children in a land-locked, almost waterless Black African country.
I have now returned to the UK with my family but the Bookworm continues at Northside School and rumour has it that at least one of the other private primaries in Gaborone is following suit with its own bookshop. If only the same facilities could be made available to children in all the Botswana government schools.
Unfortunately, this is just a pipe dream since few children in these schools could afford to buy new books. Unless, of course, anyone has any second hand books to pass on…