Friday, November 14, 2014

Cultivating a Reading Culture

William Susuwele Banda, executive director at the Malawi Institute of Education (MIE) in Zomba, has visited a number of foreign destinations on a wide variety of airlines. But, despite the differences in both destination and plane used, one scenario keeps replaying itself.

“I am talking of the situation where, when most of the people aboard the planes I have been in are busy reading novels or other books, there are always some people who sleep half-way or all the way (to their destination). I have discovered that most of those who prefer sleep to reading are Malawians, and this points to something unfortunate about our general lack of interest in reading,’ says Susuwele Banda.

What baffles Susuwele Banda is the fact that some foreign nationals aboard planes sometimes pile ‘a mountain of books on themselves, even though it may be apparent that they won’t go through all those books before reaching their destination”, and yet the Malawian sees nothing interesting in the reading materials.

The educationist blames the trend on deep-seated disdain for non-textbook-related books and the tendency to view books in the same light as ‘flowers’- tools for office decoration.

“Our research findings have revealed that, instead of making text and non-text books available in, say, primary school libraries, the books are kept for safe-keeping, and not accessed for reading purposes. Then, there is the issue of book publishers who do not value the idea of donating books, even 20 of them, to the children of this country,” says Susuwele Banda, before adding:

“It would do no harm to donate books that have been damaged during the production process to learning institutions, so long as they have the pages intact, but that does not happen in this country. No wonder, we are failing to douse the fires of a non-reading culture in the country, though we can let it die out by the simple act of providing reading materials.”

However, Susuwele Banda points out that the situation is not beyond redemption. He says Malawians can draw motivation from the United States of America, where children as little as 12 years recognise the importance of books at that tender age.

The school-going children walk door-by-door asking for books that are surplus to requirements, he says, adding that, courtesy of the U.S. children’s zeal, an initiative called the African Library Project (ALP) was born.

“Just imagine, little children, in a far-away country like the U.S., walk door-by-door asking for books so that children they have never met should find something to read. That is more than commitment. That is more than love,” says Susuwele Banda.

Not that the U.S. children’s love is felt only in Malawi. According to Project Coordinator for the ALP at MIE, Jessy Mphunda, the ALP benefits a number of African countries.

“We partnered with ALP in 2012, and we are not their only partner in Malawi as Development Aid from People to People, Wungwero Bool Foundation, and Ayise are their other partners. In Africa, the other countries that are working with ALP are Ghana, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Lesotho, Swaziland and Botswana,” says Mphunda, a librarian by profession.

Mphunda says Malawi is making headway in inculcating a reading culture among learners, citing the increased numbers of districts that have started tapping from the initiative. The number of districts benefitting from the initiative, she says, has jumped from three in 2012 to 10 in 2014. Beneficiaries include private and public primary and secondary schools.

“The number of books distributed is also increasing. For example, we distributed 11, 569 books in 2013 while, this year, the figure has jumped to 30, 327. We have seen secondary schools such as Phalombe in Phalombe, Simlemba Community Day in Kasungu, Linthipe Community Day and primary schools such as Nyamitalala in Nsanje and Nsanjama Private in Zomba receive books,” says Mphunda.

On concerns that books distributed by well-wishers such as ALP do not meet curriculum needs since they do not conform to curricula requirements, Mphunda says one of the reasons for the perceived non-reading culture in the culture steps from people’s tendency to read in order to pass examinations, as opposed to reading for pleasure.

“Reading is not only about preparing for examinations. People can read the books to learn two or three things about, say, how to write a short story or poem, and that is the most important thing. We must learn to acquire different kinds of knowledge,” says Mphunda.

What to read?
While some education experts claim that Malawians are not predisposed to reading, and only read seriously when there are examinations around, Phalombe District Education Manager, Lewis Chakhota, begs to differ.

“Malawians do not hate reading books. They simply have no books to read,” says Chakhota.
Chakhota says the truth about the extent of a reading culture in Malawi, or the lack of it, can only be ascertained once the country is saturated with books.

“Otherwise, there are many cases where people want to read but cannot find something to read. Let us give Malawians books, and draw conclusions afterwards. But for this to happen, we should start changing the way we run our reading affairs at primary school level, where some head teachers keep books unused for long periods of time, and then receive awards or get recognised for keeping ‘books in good order’. No, no, no. Books are for reading and not safe-keeping,” observes Chakhota.

The Director of Education Materials Development and Resource Centre at MIE, Max Iphani, cannot agree more.

Iphani says failure to read runs counter to the tenets of the information age we are in.

“When we say an information age, we mean a book age. This means relevant information about development is found in books. It follows, therefore, that, if Malawi is surrounded by books, it can develop fast because, in essence, this means the country will be surrounded by a vast body of information on development and other important issues,” says Iphani.

Only then, maybe, can the typical Malawian stay awake all the way from Chileka or Kamuzu International airports to Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom, tapping as much information as possible from the books before touchdown.

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