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A lot has been said about the country losing its grip on reading culture and this has been compounded by, among other things, lack of reading materials on the ground – either because writers are not publishing enough or because libraries have inadequate books for people to read.

Technology has also contributed much to people not having interest in reading books to enjoy different stories.

Gone are the days when people used to scramble for, among other publications, Africa Writers Series books in libraries, not forgetting romantic novels of Mills and Boon.

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Today the culture of reading has been thrown out of the window as, for the most part, people spend all their time on social media.

There were times parents at home would sit down with their children and encourage them to read books but, today, that is a non-starter. Children have no interest in reading.

The government, through the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology, has taken some serious moves to bring back the culture of reading although the efforts are still not enough.

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Some writers have created platforms aimed at reviving reading culture in the country.

It is said that a country that reads a lot, knows a lot and chances of its development are high.

Veteran writer and historian Desmond Dudwa Phiri said in September last year, during the celebration of his life, that the country has to work up from its slumber and start reading again.

But there are people out there who are spending sleepless nights thinking about how to revive reading culture in the country.

Recently, visual artist Elson Kambalu posted a picture of a Reading Garden in Lilongwe on his Facebook page. The garden is situated at Lilongwe Demonstration School in Area 25.

This is one of the initiatives that is aimed at promoting reading culture in the country and while this could have surely been created by Malawians themselves, Lisa Vihos from United States of America saw the need to create the platform.

Kambalu said it was fun for him and the family walking around with kids in the reading garden.

“Already, the place has attracted people’s attention because it is a very unique project, with lots of potential to change children’s lives in surrounding communities,” he said.

Vihos said the idea to start a reading garden began as a dream in the minds of a group of talented and visionary educators, who came from Malawi to Sheboygan in USA.

“It was my friends from Malawi who saw Bookworm Gardens here in Sheboygan, Wisconsin and wished for something like it in Malawi,” Vihos said.

He added that he then took it upon herself to apply for a grant given one-per-year to the alumni of her undergraduate alma mater, Vassar College.

“They chose my idea (and I am sure it helped me to be able to say I already had a location in Lilongwe at the Teachers Training College and Demonstration School,” she said.

Vihos said her first trip to Malawi was in August 2016, with faculty members from Lakeland University in USA, the school at which her Malawi friends got their MA Education degrees.

“I was only in Malawi for a very short time, trying to meet builders, learning about the location and seeing what would be involved. I returned in December 2016 with a colleague from Wisconsin, Geralyn Leannah, who is a reading specialist in our public school system in Sheboygan,” she said.

Vihos said Leannah helped her a lot in doing several art and reading projects with the children at the Demonstration School during their two-week stay in Malawi.

She further said, when she returned home, landscape architect Kelly Bahrs donated her time to make a professional drawing for the garden.

She came back to Malawi in July 2017.

“During this trip, things really started to come together. I was able to gain the assistance of David Witte, the managing director of Four Seasons plant nursery in Lilongwe. He had so many wonderful ideas about the use of recycled materials, [so that we could] be both beautiful and cost effective,” Vihos said.

She said Witte caught the vision of how a garden such as the one they were putting up would support the culture of reading.

“I hope Elson (or other artists he could enlist) will be involved in supervising community art projects in which children from area secondary schools (as well as the young children at the demonstration school) might be involved in painting sculpture or murals that will enliven the garden as it continues to grow,” she said.

Vihos observed that there was a need to expand the patronage, adding that people at the school were working very hard on this.

Vihos is not done yet in supporting the project as she wants to do more.

“I am looking at organising a fundraising concert here in Sheboygan, hopefully at Bookworm Gardens in May 2018, considering that this is the place that inspired this idea in the first place,” she said.

Vihos said the garden is a place to read, learn, dream, think, play and explore, adding that it will someday have a theatre for music, poetry, dance, theatre—organised or impromptu.

For Vihos, this is an important garden which belongs to the community and a hub for arts and reading.

There might be other reading places in the country but, for Vihos, this is a calming place of beauty with all the native plants and flowers honoured and cared for.

Asked if she has any plans to have the gardens in all the three regions, Vihos said:

“I don’t have any plans just yet to expand to other cities, but my Malawi friends in other areas (Blantyre, Karonga, Mzuzu, etc) would like to see similar gardens in other places. Perhaps this one can serve as a model for the future.”

She said every community in every part of the world is full of people who have creative energy inside them, but they do not always get to express it because they have to put food on the table and pay rent.

“A place like this can foster and support creative energy by bringing people together to share their talents working in community. Along with that, this particular creative endeavour is honouring reading,” she said.

Vihos said she has great hopes that all that has been envisioned for this garden will come to pass in good time.

And showing her seriousness to the garden, Vihos managed to bring William Kamkwamba in July last year, and Kamkwamba had time to speak to students in the garden.

Kamkwamba is an innovator, engineer and author. He gained fame in the country in 2002 when he built a wind turbine to power a few electrical appliances in his family’s house, at Wimbe in Kasungu District, using blue gum trees, bicycle parts and materials collected from a local scrapyard.

His book The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind has been made into a movie by Hollywood star Chiwetel Ejiofor. The film was shot last year and is yet to be released.

According to Vihos, Kamkwamba told Standard Four pupils, when he came to speak to students in the reading garden, that “in this life, everything is possible”.

“We hope someday to have a windmill in the garden, an outdoor theatre, an alphabet grove, a plant nursery and many different theme sections including travel and adventure, music and movement, my flower garden and what do I want to be when I grow up,” Vihos said.

Deputy Principal at Demonstration School, Caroline Majiga, said the reading garden is progressing.

“We had the ground breaking ceremony last week Friday (February) and the contractor is working on the first phase,” Majiga said.

Vihos is in art education, and received her BA in art history from Vassar College and her MA in art history from the University of Michigan.

She worked in art museums for 20 years and spent eight years in Advancement at Lakeland University.

“Now I am the grant writer at the John Michael Kohler Arts Centre in Sheboygan, a place that is committed to empowering the community through the arts. I am also a poet and I do a lot of community organising around poetry, in particular with a worldwide movement called 100 Thousand Poets for Change,” she said.

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