Monday, September 23, 2013

Children's Right to Read

Following is a presentation by a friend of mine, Zimbabwean author Virginia Phiri, at the IBBY/UNISA Symposium on The State of Children's Literature and Reading in Africa in South Africa on September 17, 2013.

By Virginia Phiri – Zimbabwe

I decided to take on the topic “Children’s Right to Access Books” because I feel this is the foundation before any reading takes place.
Coming from Zimbabwe where the literacy rate is falling as per Zimbabwe Read 14 June, 2013 statistics as Zimbabweans we certainly have a lot to worry about. The literacy rate state of affairs is 97% in 2002 to 91.1% in the period 2011 -2012 that is for adults. There are no clear statistics for children up to fifteen years old. It is obvious that the rate has fallen too. I am asking myself “have we made efforts to source reading material for children through donations and grants?” This situation needs to be rectified as a matter of urgency. It is therefore important for us to be part of the IBBY family so that the literary and the book sector are strengthened.

National Obligation – Book Policy
It must be a right of every African child to access leisure books that complement text books and other educational material. Those countries with Book Policies are able to achieve this easily as everything is clearly laid down. If they fail they have themselves to blame.
In Zimbabwe we have been grappling with efforts to have the Book Policy in place since the 1990’s. I am one of the authors that have lobbied and still lobbying for this policy. The situation has badly affected the book sector in terms of budgets for book allocations and distribution. This situation has not encouraged the few children’s books authors that we have and of course the rest of other authors. Right now there is no children’s literature association. The one that existed and was doing well the Children’s Literature Foundation disappeared. This is a sad development. It is therefore every African country’s obligation to have a Book Policy in place.

The Question of Language
Language should not be a hindrance in sharing of books amongst nations. This is where the issue of translations come in. Translated books have worked wonders in both developed and underdeveloped countries. Knowledge and information that has been shared through this type of initiative has brought a wealth of ideas to young people throughout the world. At my last reading in Bulawayo in my home town on 20 November, 2012 I and the Masiyephambili Junior school students had fun.  Of the four books that we read from two were translations. There was one “Kurius and Baktus” originally written in Norwegian by Thorbjon Egner and “Kolobeja” originally isiNdebele folktales translated and written by Pathisa Nyathi a Zimbabwean historian.  “Wallace in Underland”  by Ambassador Charles Ray of the United States of America and my forth coming book “Ginger the Urban Cat”.  Issues shared in these four books are universal and children were able to relate to them. The readings were in English. Other schools request for readings in local languages and I have no problems with that as I speak most of our languages.  It is also possible to translate local languages into each other and even go further to have them translated into English and other international languages. Some of my isiNdebele works have been translated into Czech, English and Chinese.

Geographical Book Distribution
In this part I will give examples of situations that I am familiar with at home. Out of the children’s books that are donated or bought by grants from well wishers a big number of them go to urban areas where the children are already well off. The children in rural areas, farming communities and informal settlements struggle. Those who are responsible for distributing the books usually give flimsy excuses such as “the books will be stolen, there are no proper libraries to keep the books or the destinations are not accessible. This unfair distribution has disadvantaged this group of children who would make full use of the books unlike the urban children who are usually hooked on television and internet games.
At times committed individuals take it upon themselves to take books to rural areas using public transport and at times finishing the journeys by walking with a load of books on their heads. I feel that distributors should be reprimanded for not getting books to rural children.

Books for the Physically and Mentally Challenged
I will again go back to the Book Policy. This must be so practical that it caters for the needs of the physically and mentally challenged.  There is a lot of neglect in this category in Africa
Unlike in developed countries where there is enough resources and appropriate equipment to help children read.  
I can safely say that reading material for blind children is available in Zimbabwe.
The Dorothy Duncan Centre in Harare run by Sister Catherine a Catholic Nun runs an impressive Braille library.  The Braille transcriptions also take place at the centre. A small group of Sister Catherine’s committed assistants do the work. I am familiar with centre’s activities because they have exhibited at the Book Fair in Harare and I have visited the centre.
Deaf children’s reading needs are catered for at the well equipped Catholic Emerald Hill School in Harare.
As a matter of interest most of these special schools and institutions are privately owned. I feel it is the State’s responsibility to make arrangements to cater for those children who are not able to be absorbed into special institutions due to lack of space. Home environments are not usually suitable as there is lack of expertise in supervision except for the well off who are able to hire help. The challenged rural children are the most affected and forgotten. They waste away due to both ignorance and superstition. A lot needs to be done do educate parents and guardians about the importance of giving these children an opportunity to read.

Public Readings
It is a proven fact that public reading activities for children encourage and boost the confidence of the children to want to read. I have witnessed this at book fairs, arts festivals and school open days that I have been part of.
Despite my first published co-authored readers for children commissioned by UNICEF in 1995 I have always public read from books for adults and to adult audiences. That is my own books and other authors. It had never occurred to me that I could read children’s books to children audiences until the Czech Embassy in Harare commissioned me and a colleague Barbara Nkala to read from “Kolobeja” a book of folktales from the Ndebele past that had been translated into Ennglish. This was for the Book Fair activities in Harare in 2010, we moved on to Gweru Arts Festival and then Bulawayo. Since then I have enjoyed reading together with the children where I share books that I manage to source or at times buy at jumble sales.


In conclusion, on behalf of myself and my fellow Zimbabwean children’s literature activists I would like to thank IBBY for giving me an opportunity to attend this conference. My hope is that we become part of the IBBY family. 

Virginia Phiri is the author of Highway Queen and other works. She currently resides in Harare, Zimbabwe.