It takes a village to end illiteracy

I learnt to write more or less at the same time that I learnt to read. My writing and reading teacher was my maternal grandfather. He would write the letter “b” on the ground with his walking stick and I would imitate it just below his writing. It was how I learnt that b-a-b-a was “baba” and m-a-m-a was “mama”.

I admit to the letter “m” causing me heartache — I would write it as “3”, “w”, anything but “m”. But eventually I got it and “wawa” became “mama” as it should have been.

I was a little over four years old and my geriatric grandfather had taught me a love for words. This love would continue in spite of my moving away from my him. This love was nurtured at school, by my parents and by my community.

In the Zimbabwe of the mid-1980s, reading was a key subject in my primary school. Every day for 35 minutes on our timetable, we had a reading class. In earlier classes, we would read the same book. Each pupil would read a paragraph or a page.

When observed as having problems with reading, a struggling child would go for remedial reading classes during break. As break was very important playtime for us, those who were slow would soon catch up so that they could join everyone else on break.

When we became older, we would have silent reading for the 35-minute period. My friends and I would take a library book that we knew other friends had not read so that in the week before the next library period, we would have read three or four books.

At home, reading for leisure was an acceptable thing. If a chore was not done, the only time I could get away with it was when I told my mother I had been finishing a book. But then I would have to summarise it for her, so it was not something I could lie about.

Boredom was not a thing because the obvious cure was reading.

Out of reading material? There was a lovely book exchange manned by two old ladies who lit up whenever someone walked into their book shop and were always recommending something to read.

I would later find out that they were volunteers and the book exchange space had been donated by the municipality because there was no library in that neighbourhood. In my broader community, and by this I mean my extended family and neighbours, literacy was celebrated.

My community rejoiced in my getting a language prize in primary school as much as it felt embarrassed when my cousin came out of prison for a white-collar crime. The reader that I am now was nurtured by school, family and my community.

My family did not leave the job to my teachers — that’s why my first teacher was a family member. My teachers did not leave it to my family in spite of my having been in a class with 40 pupils at any one time. And my community applauded and encouraged, instead of shaming me with pronouncements that I would “go mad” if I read too much.

In South Africa, as 2017 was winding down, the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (Pirls) informed us that 78% of South African grade four pupils cannot read with comprehension in any language. This is in spite of the fact that the ministry of education has, since the advent of democratic rule in 1994, consistently got one of the biggest chunks of the state budget. Where are we going wrong?

Fortunately, in all this mess, there are individuals and organisations that know the importance of literacy and work towards it despite of their minimal budgets.

Nal’ibali, the national campaign for reading for enjoyment, thinks it may have a solution that goes beyond throwing money at our nation’s literacy problem. In addition to providing free reading material on the website for children and encouraging the formation and support of reading clubs all over the country, every year since 2013, they have encouraged South Africans to join the rest of the world in a campaign entitled World Read Aloud Day.

“Reading aloud has been shown to be the single most important activity for building the knowledge required for eventual success in reading,” according to the National Academy of Education and National Institute of Education. And every year since 2013, when Nal’ibali joined World Read Aloud Day, a South African author has provided a story. Each year too, the numbers of those who take part in the campaign has increased, rising steadily from 13 401 in 2013 to an incredible 719 627 last year. Last year, the campaign was lucky to have Buhle Ngaba, Mohale Mashigo, Hlubi Mboya and Sindiwe Magona reading aloud to some of the children.

For 2018, I am honoured to be the contributing writer with my story, The Final Whistle, which has been translated into all our national languages. On February 1, I will be home in South Africa where I will read to a thousand children in Mofolo Park, Soweto. The Final Whistle, about a football-loving future Bafana Bafana player, will be read across South Africa. Depending on reading age and ability, the story is suitable for children from six to 10 years old.

I would be doubly honoured if you, fellow South Africans, would go to and download the story for free in your preferred language to read it to children at a school, at your local library or in your neighbourhood on this day.

The aim this year is to have at least a million children participating in World Read Aloud Day. Illiteracy will not end through taking part in the campaign but it will be a good way to reduce it, more so if those of us who take part on World Read Aloud Day commit to doing it more frequently.

For my part, I commit to avail myself to read aloud to children at least once every two weeks during the four months I will be home from February 1 until the end of May. So alert your local reading clubs or libraries if they need me to do so. I would like to play my part to ensure that when Pirls does the next report on literacy, there are more children who can read.

More importantly, I hope that more children can develop the joy of reading that my grandfather, my parents, my teachers and my community when I was growing up in Zimbabwe nurtured in me.

Zukiswa Wanner is a South African author based in Kenya. 

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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