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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


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After literacy, what next? The challenge of sustaining a literate environment in Botswana

Gertrude Kayaga Mulindwa
Marty I. Legwaila
Botswana National Library Service



Botswana's education policy, advocates for the Department of Non-Formal Education to

    `...give greater priority to post-literacy activities, particularly the development of a literate environment...'

This is to address the question `After literacy, what next ?', which was often asked by people who had successfully completed the Botswana National Literacy Programme in the early 1980s when it had just began. The question summed up their frustrations and anxiety at having acquired what many considered to be new survival skills and seeing their lives not changing for the better. They had been made to understand that once they possessed reading, writing and numeracy skills, their lives would certainly improve. They were instead discovering that without a sustainable post-literacy programme this was unlikely to happen.


Literacy education and the public library service

Literacy education in Botswana was first conducted by the Department of Community Development and the Botswana Christian Council immediately after independence in 1966. In 1977, a National Commission on Education and the resultant National Policy on Education advocated for literacy education to become an integral part of the education system. The National Literacy Programme was, as a result launched in 1981 by the Department of Non-Formal Education (DNFE) and aimed at teaching the skills of reading, writing and numeracy to those adults who were either illiterate or had dropped out of school before completing five years of primary education. With funding from the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA) and the Government of Botswana, the programme started with Literacy Group Leaders being despatched to rural areas to get as many adults as possible, literate. Meanwhile, the Department of National Library Service (DNLS) had been established in 1967 by an Act of Parliament with the first public library opening in the capital, Gaborone that year. The service was extended over the following two decades to various districts. This expansion was also made possible through substantial funding by the Swedish International Development Authority and the Government of Botswana. The library service concentrated on providing reading and information material mostly to those who could read.

At a different level, therefore the question `After Literacy what next ?' also summed up the disparate operational nature of the literacy programme and the public library service. With the advantage of hindsight, it can now be said that although both programmes aimed at getting people to read to better their lives and they both received funding from the same sources, they had been planned to operate as separate entities with no common ground.

In the field, however, both librarians and literacy teachers were becoming increasingly concerned about the relevance and benefit of their services to the people. The librarians were very aware of the limited number of books available in local languages and on topics of interest to the ordinary citizen. This lack of suitable literature was due to the small size of the publishing industry. Not only were the books in the library of little relevance to the reading needs of the populace especially in rural areas, but for many people, the libraries were mostly too far for them to regularly make the journey and make full use of them. In a country where most publications were coming from outside, the literacy teeachers were faced with a desparate situation of having no suitable material to sustain the literate environment that they were trying to create. In Kgatleng district to the immediate North of Gaborone, three Village Reading Rooms were opened by the DNFE to stock additional reading material for adult new readers. The District Adult Education Officer also liaised with his counterpart at the only public library in the district and arranged for simplified material to be made available in the library for the new literates. There was obviously a need to converge the two programmes so that all resources available could be harnessed in totality so that they could fully benefit the population.

The break through came when the Botswana Library Assosiation organised a conference in 1985 on `Libraries and literacy' as a national prelude to the 7th Standing Conference of Eastern Central and Southern African Librarians which was to be held in Botswana the following year. The 1985 conference, for the first time brought together librarians and literacy educators for the purpose of working out a common strategy to ensure that the Botswana population became functionally literate and that they made full use of the public library service in pursuit of this. The participants were mostly drawn from literacy group leaders and librarians serving in rural areas. During the conference deliberations they recounted their hands on experience, and this was invaluable in demonstrating in the minutest detail, the many challenges they faced in their work. What emerged was an agreement to ensure that the two services work in tandem as they were obviously complementary to each other and their work could not be successful if carried out separately. There was also a reaffirmation of the link between literacy, especially functional literacy and the empowerment of an individual both socially and economically. Libraries, with their aim of providing free access to reading and other information materials were obviously crucial in achieving this. On the basis of this it was agreed that a pilot Village Reading Rooms project be started in Kgatleng districts where three had already been started by the DNFE. It was also because of the appreciation of the need to work together that the 6th national development plan covering the years 1985 to 1991 included a commitment to the National Literacy Programme by stating, under the section on public libraries, that,

    `Village Reading Rooms will be constructed to assist with the National Literacy Programme'

The VRRs were started as a joint venture between DNFE, DNLS and the local communities. Twenty villages were identified and discussions were held with community leaders who identified a building in the village, in most cases a primary school classroom which could be used. The identified rooms were then fitted with solar-powered electricity which could be used for lighting in the evenings. Books in local languages were then despatched to the VRRs by the DNLS. The Literacy Group Leader would open the VRR and encourage and lead the literacy learners to avail themselves of books written in local languages. While the literacy classes would not actually conducted in the VRR, the library service provided an environment whereby literacy skills were retained by ensuring that supplementary materials were made available to adult new literates. The pilot was evaluated in 1987 and the findings revealed that the public considered the VRR important in helping people to improve their literacy skills. The recommendation that the VRRs be extended to other parts of Botswana was accepted by the DNLS and the VRRs have now been extended to many areas of Botswana. There are now 67 of them and their numbers are expected to continue increasing annually at the rate of three.


The Village Reading Rooms today

Over the years VRRs have become an integral part of many remote villages in Botswana while the national literacy programme has also grown in scope and the number of learners it has reached. An extension of the project has been the publication of suitable reading material in the local languages, Setswana specifically aimed at adult new readers. DNFE, DNLS and other extension departments and NGOs regularly meet to create, edit and publish booklets on topical issues; in simplified language and specifically aimed at new adult literates.


The impact of literacy - two case studies

In a project of this nature, there are bound to be success stories just as there are several failures. Here we would like to narrate to you the experience of two people who have gone through the literacy programme and the impact that both the literacy lessons and the existence of the VRR has had on their lives.


Lessons learnt

Close to fifteen years after the start of the project, everybody is of course much wiser. There have been very rewarding experiences and several worrisome problems. A result of this is that as we proceed, every experience helps to show how such a programme can successfully be run.


The successes

Book availability in rural areas - VRRs have proved to be a fairly inexpensive way of bringing books and other information material to people in the very remote areas of the country. They have become the only place for many living in the rural areas, where they can obtain reading material. They are now used by school children, extension workers and other members of the village community.

Suitable reading materials - One outcome of the project that has proved to be very successful has been the publication of reading materials for adult new literates. There are now more than forty such titles published for this purpose. They are available in the VRRs, the district DNFE offices and the DNLS headquarters. The success of this publication programme has led the government to commit itself to funding the publication of more titles.

The benefits of literacy - The National Literacy Programme has extended to assisting people start income generating activities after acquiring literacy skills and to developing an adult basic education course that is equivalent to seven years of primary school. Attempts are made to include books on such activities including sewing, carpentry and in the VRRs collection and supplementary reading material for those who are taking the adult basic education course.


The challenges

Multiple ownership of the project - The project is owned jointly by the government and the local community. However, there are many who have influence over it including the local librarian who is supposed to provide guidance; the village development committee representing the people and whose co-operation the librarians and the adult educators need if there is to be success; the village headman; the Literacy Group Leader; the local MP; the local school Headmaster and others depending on the circumstances. This leads to a clash of interest sometimes which is detrimental to the project's success. Clear guidelines need to be in place to ensure that all concerned know their role.

Interests of the new literate adults - When the project was first started, discussions were held between DNFE, DNLS and the local Village Development Committes representing the people who lived in the villages where the VRRs were to be located. Unfortunately the literacy learners themselves were not consulted. A result of this is that several issues that affect their ability and willingness to use the VRRs were not taken into consideration. A 1994 evaluation showed that the very people for whom the VRRs were meant, were not using them because of the following reasons :

  • Unsuitable opening hours - The VRRs opened when the learners, who were often women were in the fields.

  • Unsuitable location - The VRRs located in primary schools were not being used by adults because of the child size furniture and because the adults did not wish to be seen in the same place used by their children.

Staffing - As a joint project, the staff were expected to be the Literacy Group Leaders supplied by DNFE but paid by DNLS. Unfortunately the Literacy Group Leaders were receiving honoraria while the VRR Assistants were expected to receive a regular pay that would also entitle them to some kind of pension or gratuity after a certain period of service. As in some cases some community leaders objected to one person doing two jobs and receiving two salaries and because the issue was not discussed between DNFE and DNLS, some Literacy Group Leaders abandoned their jobs for the VRR Assistant's job. Obviously, more consultation between DNFE and DNLS should have been done at the beginning.



The experience gained in this project has been invaluable in helping to plot a way forward for a literate environment. Issues that have surfaced as being crucial to the success of the programme are :

Clear Aims and objectives - Clarity of what the project aims at achieving is crucial for the success of the project. Plans are then made with that as the guiding principle. If the aim is unclear there is a real danger of the project being pulled in a different direction.

Staff training and committment - Staff need to be very clear about what is expected of them and also very committed to their work. More training in extension work rather than the intricacies of librarianship is required to ensure the success of the project.

Suitable reading material - When planning for such a project, the issue of where suitable reading material is to come from is very important. This is especially true of countries where the publishing industry is small and the language of official communication is a foreign one.

Consultation - This is required at all levels, to carry on board all those who are involved or are likely to be involved in the project, to ensure that all are working towards the same objective.

Funding - The funding for the project is now received from the central government. When requesting for funding, there has been a need to tie the acquisition and sustanance of literacy to the overall national goals of sustainable development. By doing this, funding has been assured for the next three years at least.

The Learners - These are the most important to the success of the project. They need to be listened to, to find out their aspirations and to steer the project towards that. Without their voice and input, it is unlikely that the project will succeed.


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