In April, Bas Bleu editor AG’s beloved mother, Karen Kimball—invaluable grandmother to her kids and Bas Bleu “mom-tern” extraordinaire!—embarked on a life-changing journey to Malawi, Africa, where she would stay for six months in order to start up an educational program providing literacy training to teachers. Since Bas Bleu’s readers are ardent devotees of the written word and such great ambassadors for the importance of literacy, we thought you might be interested in Karen’s extraordinary adventure, so we reached out for an interview.

Bas Bleu: Briefly describe the program you are heading up. Who are your students?

Karen Kimball: I am training sixty adults how to teach English reading and spelling skills to young children. My students are all Sunday school teachers or other volunteers in an existing network of 200 churches throughout northern Malawi. These sixty teachers are each responsible for training five other teachers, so that English reading clubs for young children can be set up in all the churches of the network.

Karen teaching

Karen Kimball (KK) traveled to Malawi to provide English literacy training for local teachers.

BB: How did your previous job help you with what you are doing now?

KK: I was trained in the Orton-Gillingham Approach (O-G) to reading instruction at The Schenck School in Atlanta. This multisensory, phonics-based approach is crucial for students with dyslexia but is effective with any learners. For the past twelve years I have used O-G principles to teach beginning-reading skills to adults at the Cobb County Adult Education Center in Georgia. Many of these students come from other countries where they have had limited opportunity to attend school and where English is not their first language. They seem to really like and benefit from the direct instruction of the O-G Approach.

Student teaching vowels

One of Karen’s students practices teaching sounds of short vowels. Her home’s living room doubles as their classroom.

BB: Why Malawi?

KK: My current involvement was prompted by a visit to Malawi in 2013 as part of a mission trip sponsored by Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta. The church has a long-standing partnership with Stella Kasirye, PhD, who started her career in Malawi as the founding Country Representative for World Relief Malawi. She is now the country manager for Peachtree’s educational and development programs in Malawi. I was inspired by the sincere efforts and long-term commitment of Stella and leaders at Peachtree to empower people to improve the lives of others in their own communities.

gifts from students

Several of Karen’s students brought her gifts: a live chicken, a bag of groundnuts (peanuts), and a pair of festive pink shoes.

BB: What language do most people speak there?

KK: Malawi is a former British colony, and English is the official language; however, many people, especially in rural villages, primarily speak one of a variety of local languages, such as Tumbuka, Chilambiya, and Chichewa.


Karen’s roommate, Tiffness, is a local woman who also works as Karen’s assistant.

BB: How important is literacy to people’s everyday lives there?

KK: Literacy is fundamental to empowering people to improve their well-being. To advance in school, students in Malawi must be able to read, write, and speak English since all classes beyond standard 4 of primary school are taught in English.

BB: Are there books available to students there?

KK: Availability is very limited in remote villages.


Karen’s rental house/school house in Malawi.

BB: What is your day-to-day life like?

KK: I live in a rental house on the outskirts of a small town in northern Malawi. The living area of the house also serves as the classroom during the week. In this farming community, the pleasant sounds of roosters crowing, cows mooing, children laughing, and adults working in their gardens are ever-present. During this time of year, the weather has been sunny and cool, but I understand that during the rainy season, the unpaved roads turn to mud and make travel quite treacherous.

Lake Malawi

Karen has found a little time for travel in her busy teaching schedule: Earlier this summer, she joined several visiting Americans on a trip to Lake Malawi.

BB: Have you done a lot of personal reading while there? Anything good?

KK: Yes, I have greatly enjoyed reading during my time off. In the fiction category, some of my favorites have been the Kate Shackleton mysteries by Frances Brody and The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson. (All Bas Bleu picks in our upcoming catalogs!) For non-fiction, I recommend Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, John Ortberg’s When the Game Is Over It All Goes Back in the Box, and two books by Gary Haugen, who founded International Justice Mission, Just Courage and The Locust Effect.

Teachers 2

Over the course of her stay, Karen is teaching multiple groups of students, who spend a week in class before returning to their own communities. Each group will attend a total of four training sessions; in between, they practice implementing what they’ve learned.

BB: What have you learned from your students?

KK: Without fail, the people whom I have met in Malawi have been warm and welcoming. They have taught me to respond with patience when electricity goes out, when water pressure is non-existent, or when vehicles (if you are lucky enough to have one) break down. My students openly and joyfully share their gratitude for God’s provision.

BB: Our thanks to Karen for sharing her experience (and photos!) with us!