The little boy was standing patiently in the queue looking longingly at the goodie bags, which were being handed out to the children ahead of him. His eyes lit up when his turn finally came. The moment he received it, he quickly dug into the bag and couldn't believe his luck. Never before had he received a gift like this: a bag full of books, a bunch of pens and a packet of colour pencils. And they were all new! Surely he'd have to return these precious materials the following day? His eyes full of mixed emotions, he looked up at Norma Hernandez, a Mexican volunteer on board Logos Hope who was handing out the gifts, and voiced his concern.
"Oh no, you don't have to," she told him. "These are for you only. Enjoy the books and you can use the pencils to your heart's content. The little boy looked overjoyed. I still remember the pure glee in his eyes," recalls Hernandez. "So ecstatic was he to receive the gift."
The boy was not alone in his exhilaration. All around him, other children were equally ecstatic and were showing off their newfound treasures to their parents.
"They had never had books and pencils of their own and were overjoyed to be owners of these things," says Hernandez. "To many children around the world, these are everyday commodities - things to which they don't attach value. But to these children in Liberia, books and writing instruments were priceless."
Hernandez should know. As a volunteer on board Logos Hope, the largest floating book fair in the world, which docked in the UAE recently, she cannot mistake the importance of an endeavour like this.
Logos Hope is owned and operated by Good Books for All (GBA) Ships, a Germany-based not-for-profit organisation. The organisation's goal is to "bring hope, help and knowledge to the people of the world," says Hernandez.
Originally used to ship books from England to India (as the demand for literature from European countries was high in India), the vessels operated by GBA Ships are today floating libraries, which welcome people at the ports they dock offering books at heavily discounted prices. Over the years the ships (four including Logos Hope) have welcomed 400 million visitors in 1,400 port visits in 162 countries, she says.
Logos (a Greek term meaning ‘word') Hope is the company's newest acquisition and the atmosphere on board is lively on the day I visit. With 7,000-plus titles arranged on shelves on the ship's deck, the air is heady with the smell of books. Off the book zone, at one end of the deck is a café and in between perusing the books and buying popcorn and ice cream, children with their families turn the atmosphere on board almost carnival like. Eager young ones pose for photographs in front of a red lifeboat on the main deck and smiling crew members are at hand to guide and help visitors.
The crew of Logos Hope is multicultural boasting over 50 nationalities. Each person on the ship is assigned a task and many people serve in their professional capacity - as seafarers, doctors, cooks, engineers and electricians - and work eight hours a day, five days a week. What is noteworthy is that the 400-member crew are all volunteers.
From the time the vessel began sailing way back in 1970 the crew of Logos Hope (which changes every year) have been busy giving hope and solace to the underprivileged. Logos Hope has been active in Guyana and West Africa - particularly Sierra Leone, Ghana and Liberia - where last year the doctors on board carried out hundreds of free eye examinations and dental treatment in clinics set up on the ship.
"As someone who's had regular dental check-ups all my life, I was surprised at how little dental care is available to people in these countries," recalls Jessie LaPlue, a 23-year-old volunteer from the US, who helped the dentists.
Medical aid is not the only solace that Logos Hope offers. In Liberia last year, the team helped rebuild orphanages and donated 50,000 books to community groups and colleges. In Sierra Leone, they donated 1,300 books to establish 13 new library branches in rural areas and trained 37 people to run them. While in Georgetown, Guyana, in 2009, the crew helped to complete several building projects for the community.
A few weeks before docking at a port, Logos Hope sends some crew members into the city to research the needs of that particular community. "We stop at a port for only two weeks and want to make sure we channel our energies in the right areas and the team helps us decide exactly what charitable activities are needed the most," explains LaPlue.
Hernandez remembers being sent to Liberia to find out how Logos Hope could contribute to the community. "One wanted to do so much to help the people there - but with limited time and means we could only contribute in certain ways. Schoolchildren were not allowed to take the stationery home because the school management had a very limited supply." All the reason why giving a child his own stationery makes such a big difference. The things most people take for granted in their everyday lives, says Hernandez, have for others a huge value.
Not only does the crew of Logos Hope make a difference to the lives of countless less privileged children, the experience of being on board a ship as a volunteer creates a life-changing impact on them as well. Seelan Govender, a South African volunteer who has been working with GBA Ships for the past 12 years, says what keeps him coming back to the ship is that special feeling of being able to transform people's lives. For example, in 2002, in Yangon, Myanmar, GBA Ships was responsible for erecting a water tower (to collect potable water) for an orphanage. "They had never had something like that before. Suddenly there was water in the bathrooms, in the kitchen, even for irrigating the fields. To be able to contribute to something like that was wonderful," says Govender.
Living and interacting with 50 cultures on a daily basis is, according to Govender, a great learning opportunity apart from also being an enriching and rewarding experience.
The beneficiaries too have only words of praise for the ship and the team members. "The ship brought some great experiences into our lives," wrote John Nyavor from Tema, Ghana, to the crew. He recalls the time when children from an orphanage called Charity Kingdom in Tema, climbed up the gangway into Logos Hope. "It was my first time on a ship, as it was for all the children with me. They were very happy and I will never forget that event. We still have the bikes that were given to us. (The crew had visited the orphanage for a project and donated their personal bicycles to people who were in dire need of a means of transportation.)
At a school in Monrovia, Liberia, called the Bethany Industrial Mission, that provides free education to children without educational opportunities, help and intervention from Logos Hope seems to have made a remarkable difference. Mark Kartakpah, from the school management says, "Over the past six months (August 2010 to January 2011), there has been dramatic growth in the number of students at Bethany Industrial Mission as a result of Logos Hope intervention and support. This semester, BIM also received an additional three female and three male teachers who are very enthusiastic. A total of 225 students are enrolled... This is manifested by many parents making enquiries to send their children on a daily basis.
"Associated with this growth has been a growing concern about identifying the level of achievements since Logos Hope visited in 2010. A number of teachers have produced their own teaching guides/plans for monitoring and evaluation. The books that were donated are having a lot of impact: students are getting along with reading, and the teachers are using dictionaries... and other teaching aids to assist in giving attention to assessing performance."
What keeps them afloat
Logos Hope's revenue comes from the sale of (discounted) books, sponsorships and donations from several organisations around the world. Port charges are frequently waived by the countries where the ship stops - a huge savings for the operators.
For an individual who comes on board for a couple of years, doesn't the task of doing voluntary work get clinical at times? Govender says: "There are many days I feel like giving up - but I guess that's part of life. What keeps me motivated is how this project keeps on touching people's lives, day after day."
The experience of being part of the crew is fascinating and for Raluca Cardos, a volunteer from Romania, one incident was particularly inspiring. "There was a young African boy who was told not to attend school because the teachers said that he could not read as he had become visually impaired. So after a free eye examination, we provided him with glasses and he returned to school, and is able to read and write as before," she says.
Sailing to different nations and providing help whether it be of the aspirational kind as in donating books, or building facilities that make living easier or providing the much-needed medical relief, the crew and volunteers of Logos Hope take significant pride in the fact that they are privileged enough to help improve the lives and condition of people who are less fortunate than them.
It is a lot of hard work but life on board has its lighter moments. Govender relates an incident when the female crew and volunteers went off the vessel for a period of two weeks at one port. When they returned, they were unable to find their quarters. A hue and cry was raised until the ship's carpenter revealed that he had moved the wooden door marking the entrance to their bunkers hence leading them to believe that their bunkers had vanished off the ship.
But such intervals of mirth notwithstanding, it is a sea life of many compromises. Volunteers have to share cramped quarters, the food can become predictably repetitive and the internet connection can be very, very slow. On lucky days, they can see a bit of television though they cannot be too choosy about what beams through.
"It's a challenge, adapting to everything," says Cardos, who when she joined was the only one from Romania. After an initial bout of feeling isolated, she soon began to appreciate the advantages of sharing her time with people from diverse cultures. The disadvantages too turned out to be a learning curve.
Sometimes, says LaPlue, "Arguments and minor scuffles do break out but the ship's management team has established a special department to handle such situations effectively."
For Hernandez, the toughest ordeal about being a volunteer at Logos Hope is having to say goodbye when it's time to disembark. "After having formed strong friendships with people - they become like your family - it is hard to let go. At the end of each year, the crew changes - those who have completed two years move on. Some of my best friendships have been on board and I really miss those who have moved back to their countries."
Also, when you live for such long stretches of time in a world that is a place unto its own, emotional attachments take on a different meaning. "You have two choices," says Hernandez. "You can either invest in a short-term relationship or be lonely on the ship."
Life on board
Some volunteers have joined Logos Hope with their families, and for the children there is an on board school offering the British curriculum. Govender, whose three-year-old daughter attends the play school, feels since there are 30 children, the teacher-student ratio is good.
For the crew members who don't have their families with them, they often ‘adopt' families. LaPlue's ‘adopted' father, Des, is Irish and is in his sixties. He lends his experience in the training department on the ship and she says they spend occasions such as Christmas and Thanksgiving together. But the moments of longing for home are not far away. At night. lying on her bunk bed, as the ship sails through the silent dark, making its way to yet another port, LaPlue misses being home. What helps sleep come easily, however, is the prospect of seeing a smile on yet another face tomorrow and knowing that she played a role, however big or small, in bringing that smile.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
- Who: Logos Hope
- What: The world's largest floating book fair that has also built schools and libraries in poor countries
If you would like to volunteer, visit www.gbaships.org