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Developing imaginative ways of improving literacy in Africa

October 7, 2015 12:43 pm

Africa Code Week gets underway this week, an initiative aimed at schooling Africa’s youth in literacy of the digital age – a whole new language for children to speak fluently and express themselves in the 21st century. The initiative is framed against the backdrop that 11 million youth are expected to enter the African labour market every year over the next decade, this according to a 2012 report, Maximizing the Impact of Digitization, and that digital jobs could increase their income by 40% to 200%, according to an African Economic Outlook report.

Makamba Online recently attended the Pan-African Literacy for All conference, staged in Cape Town and spoke to some of the leading minds on literacy development on the continent. A strong message that came out of the conference was that of making literacy accessible, and finding ways in which to inspire the youth to want to learn. It is through initiatives such as Africa Code Week, that Africa’s youth can not only be afforded access, but also be challenged to learn in new and exciting ways.

A lack of access to education
“Imagination is the space in your head that can be stretched and grows smaller as you grow older. It can be triggered by thoughts that lead to unlimited possibilities.” These are the words of Thomas Vos, 12, from Pinelands North Primary School in Cape Town, and set the tone for this year’s Pan-African Literacy for All conference.

The theme for the conference was Imagination and literacy: theory and practice, and the many academic presentations, panel discussions, keynotes and workshops at the conference were concerned with finding ways in which to make meaningful gains in literacy on the continent. The conference, in its ninth year, provides a platform for literacy professionals and researchers to engage with policy makers in government and the donor community for the benefit of local communities across the continent.

According to a 2013 UNESCO Institute for Statistics Report, sub-Saharan Africa has a literacy rate of 59% with more than one-third of adults unable to read and write. Progress in improving literacy rates across Africa has been varied, and the papers presented at the conference revealed the lack of access to education that results in low literacy rates, as well as highlighted the imaginative and innovative ways that the issue of literacy is and should be addressed on the continent.

Inspiring creative learning
Africa has a rich history of storytelling that is central to community life, and for social cohesion. A recurring theme at the conference was understanding that literacy is an issue central to the human experience. Literacy must go beyond the basic ability to read and write, but must allow an individual to enter other worlds through words by reading or expressing oneself by writing. Reading can, and must be done for pleasure and not just for the sake of utility. Learning to speak, to read and to write enlarges the potential for pleasure in life, and the benefit to society is great.

This notion was concisely expressed by David Harris, CEO of the DG Murray Trust who said, “Empathy, critical thinking and imagination are the three musketeers of a thriving society,” he went on to say that these three are fostered and achieved through access to literacy.

It is through initiatives, like Africa Code Week, which aims to equip future generations with the skill set they need to thrive in the 21st century workforce – but at the same time encourages a more interactive and exciting way of literacy development (learning to code).

Mother tongue learning

One of the key gleanings around the education of children on the continent, is the need for children to learn to speak read and write in their home languages. Multi-lingualism is a strength in any society and is especially important in Africa where there is a history of colonisation that resulted in the systematic marginalisation and erasure of African indigenous languages.

Prof. Sally Beach, a literacy professor from the University of Oklahoma said, “Mother tongue teaching of early reading leads to better readers in mother tongue and English.” UNESCO research has also shown that there is real intrinsic value to mother-tongue-based education that goes beyond emotional attachment, loyalty to identity, culture and values. Thus reading and writing in indigenous languages is vital to improving literacy in Africa. However, Prof Viv Edwards a keynote speaker from the University of Reading, highlighted that there is a heavy reliance on developing African language literature that is translated from English and that there needs to be a focus on encouraging and supporting writing in African languages.

Author: Anesu Chigariro

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