Educators spread the word

30 May 2005

Yet, in classrooms all around the continent, those selfsame children have to stumble and stutter their way through stilted textbooks - often in a second or third language - when they are taught to read and write. That process not only frustrates children's initial steps towards literacy, but also sets the tone for later learning, many researchers feel.

"On this continent, replete with oral wisdom and stories, we continue to favour textbooks, full of decontextualised low-level skills and drills, often in a foreign language," wrote Professor Neville Alexander and Carole Bloch of the UCT-based Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (Praesa) in a paper, titled Feeling at Home with Literacy in the Mother Tongue, penned last year.

Two things are lacking in Africa, some say - the enjoyment that comes with storytelling, and children's stories written in African languages. Now a pan-African project known as Stories Across Africa (StAAf) hopes to remedy both shortcomings in one fell swoop.

In this ambitious programme, collaborators from across the continent plan to print and distribute a trove of children's stories - for ages toddler to tween - written in African languages. StAAf is one of five initiatives spearheaded by the African Academy of Languages (Acalan), with the backing of the African Union (AU), to elevate the use and status of the continent's indigenous languages.

"One of the missing ingredients to a good literacy programme is having appropriate, enjoyable reading material," says Bloch, who also heads Praesa's Early Literacy Unit, which is coordinating StAAf. "I always say the way to a child's heart is through a story," adds the former teacher.

Post-war Rwanda typifies the African literacy dilemma. "We have a culture of storytelling in Rwanda, but we don't have a culture of reading," says Suzana Mukobwajana of Editions Bakame, publishers of illustrated tales, documentaries, novels and picture books for children and young people in Kinyarwanda, one of Rwanda's three official languages alongside English and French. "And we just don't have the money for books."

To get the ball rolling on StAAf, educators, researchers and publishers from across the continent gathered at UCT recently to come up with a master plan for the project. Over the two-day workshop, funded by the Ford Foundation, delegates pooled books from their respective countries (tales from the African diaspora will be included later), debated which languages the stories will have to be written in, and explored common tales and characters, among other things.

Regional committees have now been set up, tasked to scour for representative stories and table these for possible selection. StAAf hopes to release a pilot collection in 2006, which the AU plans to name the Year of African Languages.

It's going to be a long haul before all of the StAAf tales see the light of day, says Bloch. But, by hook and by book, organisers promise, the stories will out.

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