Literal change

Nila Tanzil is touching children's lives by building libraries on remote Indonesian islands

Nila Tanzil dedicates much of her spare time to improving children's literacy, and nowhere is this more evident than on 10 islands in eastern Indonesia. The founder of Rainbow Reading Gardens has helped establish 25 children's libraries in 25 villages, with the promise of more to come, which the non-profit organisation runs with the help of volunteers.

Recently in town for the Thailand Conference on Reading 2013, Tanzil explains that while the books cannot be taken home, they are still having a remarkable effect on children's lives.

Although Tanzil currently works as Nike's head of stakeholder mobilisation _ sustainable business and innovation, she still finds time now and then to visit the children in remote areas with new books, even if it means taking a five-hour plane ride, two-hour boat ride, three-hour truck ride and another two-hour motorcycle boat ride to get there.

How do you recruit and interest volunteers?

For volunteers in Jakarta, it's a challenge. The first time I sent out an email saying I built a library and needed help to 30 of my good friends. Only a few replied, so of course it's hurtful. But friends who don't reply sometimes forwarded the email to their network of friends. Then, people who I didn't know, but who shared the same passion, contacted me and said they wanted to help out and be a volunteer for this project. It's all really through social media.

We spread messages on Twitter to show that illiteracy rates are very shocking. On Facebook, pictures are key and really help. We don't want to make things complicated and it's great if people could just help out with what they can. It could be something as simple as dropping their books in our drop boxes set up around town.

How do you find funds to support your cause?

We mostly do fundraising and we try to make it something fun that people would enjoy. Throwing pies is not so popular in Asia, but it is widely known in the US. We have these cream pies that people can buy to throw at the faces of our volunteers as one fundraiser.

Companies also donate books, but we're still in the process of registering Rainbow Reading Gardens as a foundation. After we get our name as a foundation, we can then go to big companies to ask for CSR money because big companies need to have a bank account under the name of the foundation in order for that to proceed.

How do you balance your time between this project and your day job?

The deal I have with Nike as well as my previous jobs is I say I have this commitment, which is my library initiative. I tell them they need to give me three to four days free every three months for me to take care of the library on top of my annual leave. Otherwise, I wouldn't have any annual leave! I get 12 days extra or more to set up and visit my libraries per year. During the day, I don't take care of the library project at all and when people call, I always ask that they call again after 5pm.

What's the literacy situation in eastern Indonesia like?

The children really like books about animals, plants and folk tales. Japanese manga is something they don't take interest in at all because they haven't been influenced by Japanese culture like the people in the city. In eastern Indonesia, the illiteracy rate is between 10-36%, which means [in some places] one in every three children cannot read.

I was shocked to find out that children only started to learn to read when they were in 4th grade on some of these islands. My dream is to provide a library and books for children on all of the islands. It would take me 47 years to visit every island, even if I visit a different island every day!

Have you ever met any children who weren't interested in reading?

Most of them are excited. There are some who aren't, but then their friends start flipping through the pages of a dinosaur book, making all this noise and exclaiming how cool the dinosaurs are. Dinosaurs are a massive favourite among boys and when they hear their friends so excited, they want to know what's going on too and come to read, as well. That's how it starts and they encourage each other. That's why all the books have colours and pictures to really help stimulate their interest.

What are some changes you've noted since the children have had access to books?

It's crazy, but when I ask them what they'd like to be when they grow up, I get only two answers, which is teacher or priest. That's because it's what their parents are or it's all they've ever seen or known because there are no televisions or even electricity on these islands.

After some time, I visit these kids again and I'm hearing new answers such as lawyers, journalists and pilots. I'm very excited to hear that and to know how their horizons are widening. With a project like this, you can only expect to see the benefits in the long term.

How has reading played a role in your life?

If my mum didn't provide us with books when I was little, I wouldn't be who I am now. I really loved Tintin's adventures. That was my favourite comic book as a child and because of Tintin, I imagined that when I grew up, I'd visit America and all these countries Tintin has been to. That has really inspired me to travel and also to see the legend of the Loch Ness monster. I thought it really existed and it made me want to visit Scotland and to study in Europe, so that it's closer to Scotland. When I went to Scotland, I went to this lake and I stared at it hoping to see the monster, even though I knew it was just a legend.

It's a nice feeling to be able to be in a place you could only imagine when you were a kid.

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