South Africa is currently in a reading crisis, despite being a quarter of a century into democracy. A study conducted by International Reading Literacy found that approximately 78% of South African youth cannot read with comprehension.
That comes as no surprise when most South African adults spend less than four hours per week reading, compared to nearly double that time watching TV.
In addition, access to books – and the lack of indigenous language and diverse content books – is driving the country deeper into the reading crisis.
With that in mind, allow us to introduce five women who are challenging the status quo, determined to change our current dilemma and give South African children hope for the future.
Elinor Sisulu – Puku Children’s Literature Foundation
Elinor Sisulu is the chairwoman of Puku Children’s Literature Foundation. The foundation is a creative incubator for writers, authors, illustrators and storytellers.
Siya Masuku is one of the amazing young people who have devoted themselves to creating the kinds of books that our children need. He is at the forefront of transforming our literary landscape. https://t.co/duxe2YqeTB
— Elinor Sisulu (@ElinorSisulu) April 20, 2019
They focus on community engagement and hope to provide all children with access to quality, culturally relevant literature in all South African languages. Sisulu explains:
“Our children and young people need to read for their survival. It is as simple as that! Without a love of reading, they will be severely disadvantaged in the information technology-driven world in which we live.”
Tessa Welch and Dorcas Wephukulu – Saide’s African Storybook Initiative
The Saide’s African Storybook Initiative is an offline app to create and publish illustrated digital African storybooks for young children.
The initiative is funded by Comic Relief and stimulates the provision and use of openly licensed storybooks in all South African Languages.
Saide’s African Storybook initiative wants #GICAfrica‘s help to enable children and educators to create and publish open digital picture books to help children learn to read. They also translate books into 160 languages. Have 30 stories in 11 official languages already available pic.twitter.com/9zHM3sOOrb
— Muhammad Hussain (@muzahu) November 28, 2018
Saide’s was also one of the participants in the 2018 Google Impact Challenge. Welch asks:
“How do we get enough books to engage children whose languages and experience have not typically been served in book provision? How many books are enough? The underlying principle is that there needs to be a choice from a pool of appropriate books.”
Nonikiwe Mashologu – IBBY SA
IBBY SA is the International Board on Books for Young People, a non-profit organisation committed to bringing books and children together.
Their mission is to encourage the publication and distribution of children’s books.
— New Africa Books (@_DavidPhilipPub) January 22, 2018
In addition, the non-profit organisation aims to assist individuals involved with children’s literature, as well as protect the Rights of the Child, as per the UN Convention.
Nonikiwe Mashologu, the Chairperson of IBBY SA, says all children are born with curious and inquisitive minds who soak up information like sponges. She adds:
“Introducing them to books at an early stage will take them on so many journeys even before they step out of their communities. It will make them wonder, question and want to explore the world.”
Lynn Stefano – Family Literacy Project
The Family Literacy Project (FLP) focuses on families first and foremost, because close family members are the most important teachers in a child’s life.
Unfortunately, more than one million children in SA live with families where no adults are literate.
FLP believes that families can still prepare children to read, despite the literacy level of the adults. FLP’s director, Lynn Stefano, said every child needs to read because life without stories is monochromatic. She explains:
“Listening to and reading stories help children build their ability to imagine. Unfortunately, so much of what children are exposed to are ready-made images and ideas that do not require creative thinking. The world needs people who can imagine a different future. Stories do that for us.”
Jean Williams – Biblionef SA
Biblionef SA’s vision is the “create life-long readers who are good citizens, and who can read and think for themselves.” They make books available to children between the ages of three and 18, in all our official languages.
“Books really can change your life.” Jean Williams has run @biblionefsa for many years and is now retiring. She is responsible for donating many storybooks to kids over the years and in all South African languages. Read @carlalever‘s recent Q&A with her: https://t.co/JxIB1Yuc0P pic.twitter.com/ziJGGXhHwR
— Sunday Times Books (@BooksLIVESA) June 27, 2018
Anybody can donate books to Biblionef, but all donations must meet the following criteria:
- African content: Settings and characters that children can relate to are vital factors that assist in getting them excited about the stories and foster a life-long love of reading.
- Indigenous language: Extensive research shows that children who learn in their mother tongue perform better at school.
- New books: Children deserve new books, which “feel and smell good and excite their imagination.”
Jean Williams, who retired last year, said it was her personal goal to see the benefits from the joy that reading in their mother tongue brought South African children.
“It is especially valuable to introduce reading in the mother tongue for first-time readers. We would like all children to be able to read and write in their mother tongue, not only as a means of empowerment, but to create a reading culture in all languages.”