Time-Out Grant recipient Lisa Vihos ’81 will spend the next year supporting literacy in Malawi by building a children’s reading garden.
The garden will be built at the Teacher Training College in Lilongwe, the country’s capital. This is one of seven such schools in Malawi where primary school teachers are trained. On the same site there is also a "demonstration school," where new teachers have the opportunity to work with school age children.
The garden itself—still in the early stages of development—will feature approximately 10 sections, some associated with specific works of fiction or Malawian folktales, Vihos says. She’s in contact with the National Library Service of Malawi, seeking story ideas, and she says she’s thinking about anchoring the reading garden with a windmill, in honor of the memoir The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by Malawian William Kamkwamba.
“I want it to be generated out of their tradition, out of their cultural needs,” she says.
A mini amphitheater and reading areas might also be included in the garden and any written words will be in two languages—Chichewa, Malawi’s native language, and English, Malawi’s official language—Vihos says.
The idea to make the garden came from two sources, she says: Malawian graduate students she worked with as the former director of sponsored programs and research at Lakeland College in Wisconsin, and a lunch with former Vassar roommate Karyn Glass ’81, who encouraged her to pursue the Time-Out Grant.
Since she first began working with Malawian graduate students in 2014, Vihos says, she’s tried to think of ways she could help support literacy in Malawi. The students attend Lakeland College for one year, doing coursework toward their Masters of Education degrees with a specialty in early grade reading instruction. They return to Malawi to pass their knowledge on to prospective teachers.
“They are all extremely dedicated people,” Vihos says.
At first, she says, she thought a book drive would be a good idea, until learning from the program coordinator that the logistics made it a poor choice.
Then a trip to Chicago brought her together with Glass, who knew Vihos was looking for a project and suggested the Time-Out Grant. When she started to think of ideas that would work within the award’s parameters, Vihos says, she remembered a trip to Bookworm Gardens in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, where Charlotte's Web, Hansel and Gretel, Winnie the Pooh, and other children's classics are recreated in a garden setting.
“The first time the [Malawian] graduate students stepped into Bookworm Gardens, they came back from the experience and said, ‘It would be such a great thing if we had something like that in Malawi,’” Vihos says. “At the time, I just tucked the idea into the back of my head.”
With an idea now set, the next phase was to check the feasibility of building a reading garden in Malawi, so she spoke to the Malawi program director from Lakeland College as well as leaders at the Lilongwe Teacher Training College. They all thought it was a marvelous idea, Vihos says, so she applied for the Time-Out Grant. When she received word that she had been awarded the grant, it was another sign that the reading garden was the perfect plan, she says.
“Every time I went to the next place to get information, there was positive feedback,” Vihos says.
In addition to researching stories for the garden, she’s working with people in Malawi to hire the architect, designers, artists, and builders who will make the project a reality. She’ll travel to Malawi three times in the coming year to help direct the project, Vihos says.
When it’s completed in the fall of 2017, she says she hopes the garden will be a place where children can not only learn but are excited to visit.
“It’ll be a mixture of things that will engage the imagination—sculptures and settings that look interesting—that will allow them to see stories in a compelling way and support a culture of reading for children and families,” Vihos says.