all-Africa conference, August 1999
Elinor Sisulu is board member of the Centre for the Book and a member
of the South African Children's Book Forum. She is based in Pretoria,
South Africa. email@example.com
'Kader Asmal was a boer man. He died in the Anglo-Boer
War that took place in Bloemfontein in 1968.' Many teachers would guess
that this horrendously inaccurate statement was a response to an examination
question. This level of ignorance would even not surprise some. After
all, how many school children know that Kader Asmal is our Minister
of Education and is very much alive, and that the Anglo Boer War was
fought a hundred years ago? What should shock teachers is that this
response came not from a primary school child but from a second year
library science student!
The Kader Asmal response was quoted by Dr Lulu
Makhubela in her presentation to the all-Africa conference on children's
reading held in Pretoria in August 1999. Naturally the anecdote evoked
much laughter among the delegates to the conference, but underlying
the laughter was a grave concern that many teachers and librarians do
not read enough to acquire even the most basic general knowledge. If
professional educators, who are expected to promote reading, do not
read themselves, how can they teach children to love reading? This concern
was echoed throughout the conference, which brought together teachers,
teacher-trainers, librarians, researchers, writers, publishers, book
activists, literacy experts and policy-makers from all over Africa and
other parts of the world.
The all-Africa conference on children's reading,
the first of its kind, was organised by the South African Department
of Education, the South African National Commission for UNESCO, READ
Educational Trust, the International Reading Association and UNESCO.
Sponsors included the governments of New Zealand and the United Kingdom,
the World Bank, the International Reading Association, UNESCO as well
as some publishers and companies in the private sector.
In his opening address the Minister of Education,
Professor Kader Asmal, emphasised the importance of reading when he
said millions of African children have been denied the right to basic
education, of which literacy is the core. 'The lack of access to education
robs these children of their chances to develop their natural abilities
of reasoning, problem solving and creative thinking, and thus lift themselves
out of poverty so ensuring a better life for their own children in the
future.' The minister pointed to the need to re-design and upgrade teacher-training
programmes 'so that teachers can transform their classrooms and schools
into sites of genuine intellectual exploration and creativity'.
The importance of training teachers to teach
children how to read was a key concern of the delegates. The presentations
and subsequent discussions revealed that throughout Africa not enough
emphasis is placed on teacher preparation. Far too often, teachers in
Africa are ill motivated and ill equipped to teach reading. Discussions
pointed to the need for more research on teacher preparation in reading
and the need for information on research regarding reading which should
be available to all teachers. Teachers need to know more about the literature
of their countries and the continent as a whole and courses in children's
literature should be included in teacher-training college curricula.
Most of all children need teachers who are passionate.
The conference demonstrated that there is no shortage of people who
are passionate in their commitment to the enormous task of achieving
literacy for all in Africa and turning African children into independent
'Every teacher is a story-teller', declared one
of the delegates. The significance of storytelling and oral traditions
was another recurring theme of the conference. Mzingizi Manzezulu, a
subject adviser in the Western Cape Education Department, demonstrated
ways to use storytelling to teach science. Australian writer Mem Fox
delighted conference participants with her stories. She argued that
when learning to read children need teachers who understand deeply what
reading really is, who will tell stories and read aloud often, teachers
who will make connections between learning to write and learning to
read. Most of all children need teachers who are passionate. The conference
demonstrated that there is no shortage of people who are passionate
in their commitment to the enormous task of achieving literacy for all
in Africa and turning African children into independent lifelong readers.
'The book sector in Zimbabwe is like a dog chasing
its own tail: people don't read books because books are so expensive;
books are so expensive because people don't read.' This observation
by Miriam Bamhare, Executive Director of the Zimbabwe Book Development
Council, could apply to any other African country including South Africa.
Structural adjustment programmes throughout the
continent have entailed cuts in government education budgets. Consequently
libraries have no money to spend on books. This is a disaster for the
education of African children because the inability to read is often
the root cause of failure to progress in school. Without stimulating
reading material children do not learn to read for pleasure and are
less likely to read outside the school curriculum. The great divide
between home and school, the failure of education systems to recognise
the oral cultures of communities, especially folklore and storytelling
traditions, and the lack of culturally relevant materials in indigenous
languages are all factors which contribute towards the lack of a reading
culture in many African communities.
The greatest success of the all-Africa conference
was bringing together the major players in the field of children's literacy.
The conference showed that there is no need for each of us to try to
reinvent the wheel. There are groups of people across the continent
working in concrete and creative ways to address the problems of literacy
and reading in an environment of shrinking resources and material deprivation.
The most prominent literacy organisation in South
Africa is the READ Educational Trust. Founded by Cynthia Hugo in 1979,
READ addresses the problems of low levels of literacy and lack of libraries.
READ's countrywide language and literacy programme involves training
teachers and providing materials to schools in disadvantaged communities.
Conference discussions emphasised the importance
of mother tongue and oral language traditions as a source of literacy.
In 1995 the first Zambian National Reading Forum report indicated overwhelming
consensus that initial literacy should be achieved as quickly as possible
in a local language. The report recommended the adoption of an existing
programme developed by the Molteno Project and implemented successfully
in South Africa, Botswana and Namibia. Molteno's reading and writing
programme is based on students' knowledge of the spoken form of their
In Tanzania, the Children's Book Project (CBP)
addresses the shortage of books and reading materials. The project aims
to encourage and promote writing, publication and readership of children's
books as well as to support and improve indigenous writers, illustrators,
publishers, booksellers and printers. As a result of CBP efforts, more
than 150 titles, mostly in Swahili, have been published and disseminated
to more than 600 primary schools throughout Tanzania. The project turns
some of its titles into Braille books and audiotapes for the visually
impaired. Its training programmes for illustrators have been so successful
that CBP has carried out training for Zimbabwean and Kenyan illustrators.
CBP aims to strengthen the skills of primary school teachers and it
has launched a pilot programme using the READ method of 'language to
Another project involved in the creation of new
materials is the aptly named Association for Creative Teaching in Cameroon
(ACT). ACT has produced learning materials based on the histories, folklore
and customs of local communities in parts of Cameroon. Among other things,
ACT trains teachers in research methods and teaches them how to collect
materials for ACT supplementary readers. Since 1981 ACT has trained
about 2,500 teachers. It has also encouraged children to write and produce
their own books.
There is a lot that can be and has been done
to inculcate and sustain a reading culture in African countries. The
first all-Africa conference on children's reading provided a valuable
forum for the exchange of ideas. Delegates suggested that the conference
should be seen as a starting point, the beginning of a network and dialogue
and the first in a series of conferences at a national, regional and
This is a shortened version of
an article that originally appeared in The Teacher in South Africa,
(a sister publication to the Mail and Guardian), which is distributed
every month to all schools in South Africa [end] [BPN, no 2627,
2000, p. 11.]
to table of contents for BPN Newsletter 26-27, 2000>>