“Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn
World Book Day is celebrated on April 23 each year.
While literacy rates have gone up in sub-Saharan Africa and internet access has improved, one third of the population over the age of fifteen are still unable to read or write. The UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) statistics show a literacy rate of 65% in the region for 2017 - up from a 49% illiteracy rate in 1984. The organisation says that the region has seen successes, but still has a long way to go to catch up to the rest of the world.
World Book Day aims to champion books and celebrate a reading culture, along with the creativity and diversity it brings, while promoting literacy and equal access to knowledge. In South Africa, however, there is a reading crisis, as many children who reach high school education still lack even the most basic reading and reading comprehension skills.
World Book day is celebrated annually on April 23, selected by UNESCO to honour legendary literary figures like William Shakespeare, Miguel Cervantes and Inca Garcilaso de la Vega, who all died on this date. Finalised in 1995, World Book Day has evolved to honour authors, books and the power of reading. According to UNESCO, books are a link between the past and the future, and a bridge between cultures and generations.
While the power of reading is undeniable, a 2018 literacy study placed South Africa last out of 50 countries, finding that almost 80% of pupils in Grade 4 are unable to ‘read for meaning.’ According to a statement released by the Molteno Institute for Language and Literacy: “If children can’t read, they can’t learn, so they are more likely to be trapped in the scourge of poverty, hopelessness and unemployment. Being able to read enables children to live a better future.” But, says the Institute, there is a solution.
The non-profit organisation that aims to change the world and move towards a fully literate Africa, and has developed a literacy programme with South African schools in mind - Breakthrough to Literacy. The programme, which has been implemented with great success in a number of South African schools, emphasises that the key to unlocking literacy is to develop a child’s reading and writing skills in their home language.
In a statement, the Molteno Institute says the Breakthrough to Literacy course is a mother-tongue literacy initiative that targets children in their first three years of primary schooling. It teaches youngsters to read with comprehension and develop writing and listening skills, utilising aural and oral language skills that children bring into the classroom with them from home.
This programmes ties in perfectly with the 2019 theme for World Book Day, summarised in a statement by the Director General of UNESCO, Audrey Azoulay, as: “Books are a form of cultural expression that lives through and as part of a chosen language. Each publication is created in a distinct language and is intended for a language-specific reading audience. A book is thus written, produced, exchanged, used and appreciated in a given linguistic and cultural setting. This year we highlight this important dimension because 2019 marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages, led by UNESCO, to reaffirm the commitment of the international community in supporting indigenous peoples to preserve their cultures, knowledge and rights.”
World Book Day aims to introduce the youth to the power of reading, and perhaps in a country as diverse as South Africa, with 11 official languages, the ability to read and love a affair with stories is one that should be introduced in a child’s mother tongue before it can be expanded. In this way, the heritage, culture and language of each child can be promoted, while the children themselves are introduced to a world that just becomes bigger with each page that is turned.
For a list of African novels written by authors in their mother tongue (that have been translated into English as well), click here. This list, posted on the reading networking site Good Reads, is great for people who want to diversify their reading list with novels written by African authors in their own language.