When a group of Malawian students from Lakeland University toured Sheboygan’s Bookworm Gardens in 2014, they wishfully mused, “Oh, it would be so lovely to have something like this to support reading in our country someday.”
The garden, located on Campus Drive, pays homage to staples of mostly American and English children’s literature through its décor and activities. It was created by locals in an effort to promote reading and the outdoors among families.
Lisa Vihos, a former employee at Lakeland, couldn’t help but overhear the students’ enthusiasm and wonder, and she tucked it all away at the back of her mind. A few years later, she came to a crossroads in her professional life and was wondering what to do next.
“And the garden idea came back to me,” she said.
Vihos applied for and received the “Time-Out Grant” from her alma mater, Vassar College in New York, which helps financially support individuals taking time out from their regular schedules to devote themselves to a major endeavor.
It wasn’t long before she recruited Geralyn Leannah, a retired reading specialist who worked with the Sheboygan Area School District and Lakeland’s Malawian graduate program, to the project. Their last trip to Lilongwe, Malawi, was in December.
Vihos stresses the fact that they have not broken ground on the project yet, but they made great headway on their last trip in terms of helping demonstrate to locals the “educational underpinning and philosophy of the garden.”
One of the ladies’ greatest connections in Malawi is the Demonstration School, which is located next to what they envision will be the site of the garden. On their last visit, Leannah took students—in two groups of 120—out to the open site and read aloud “The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” a children’s book about Malawian William Kamkwamba, who built a windmill to bring electricity and water to his village after happening upon science textbooks. A teacher also read the story in Chichewa, one of Malawi’s national languages.
“The kids loved it, and they got it,” Vihos said. She recalled how the kids were fascinated by the story of someone just like them who made a huge contribution to his community through knowledge gained by reading.
The children also had a blast jumping up and acting out the story with props brought by the ladies. Additionally, they worked on crafts based on the story with the instruction of Malawian artist Elson Kambalu, who will likely also be helping with the garden project.
“This is good because being in a different culture where people are just struggling really sometimes to eat, we’re thinking, ‘How do we build community?’” Vihos said. “And certainly (Malawians) are doing it as well, but to bring in a little tidbit from another place and share this notion of working together through the arts and literature was very eye-opening and powerful.”
The ladies hope they will have a clearer idea of what the garden will look like and its timeline once Bob Reinthaler, of Sheboygan’s Greenscape, finishes drawing up a potential design for it. They would like alphabets worked into the décor as a constant reminder of “letters and words” and to provide access to laminated books.
While the garden will be inspired by Sheboygan’s Bookworm Gardens, it will not be an exact replica, instead, it’s paying homage to the stories and folktales that resonate with Malawian students. What do the ladies envision at the center of the attraction? A windmill, representing William Kamkwamba’s story.
Still, through the project, a little piece of Sheboygan will find a home in the heart of Malawi.
The Sheboygan-Malawi connection
Most would not have guessed there’s a strong connection between a place like Sheboygan and a country in Southeast Africa. Vihos attributes the start of this unexpected bond to Lakeland University.
According to the university’s website, Lakeland has a longstanding association with educational efforts in Malawi. From 1999-2012, in partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Lakeland provided full education scholarships for 55 students from Malawi, permitting those students the opportunity to complete a bachelor’s degree at the main campus near Howards Grove. More recently, the institution has established a graduate program for Malawian students.
“There’s quite a few people in the area who know of the program or served as host families and the students attend some of the different local churches,” Vihos said. “There’s quite a lot of people who know about Malawi in Sheboygan.”
With the help of Leannah, local grade schools have also joined in the effort to explore Malawian culture. She prompted students from Longfellow Elementary School and the Demonstration School in Malawi to draw what they believe should be in a reading garden, so each group has the opportunity to see the ideas of the other.
Cooper Elementary School has also established a pen-pal arrangement with the Malawian students. Leannah delivered the Sheboygan students’ letters to the Demonstration School on her last trip. She was deeply touched when instructors not only had response letters from their own students ready to send back with her but also included photos of the kids, which can be difficult to arrange given resources in the country.
From one of the ladies’ colleagues, Nancy Buhr, who is raising funds to help professional development in Malawi and support efforts to bring Malawian professionals together in the country, to a GRO (Girls Reaching Out) chapter in Kohler fundraising to establish a well in Malawi, to the local Pebblebrook Press preparing to re-launch a series of children’s books by Malawian authors and illustrated by Lakeland students, the connections are almost endless.
“I don’t know how to go about doing this,” Vihos said, “but I have this dream that we could be sister cities someday.”