One of the lesser appreciated problems in South Africa which, if tackled correctly, could have a knock on effect for everything from business acumen to social understanding to basic education is that in a lot of areas within the country, there’s no such thing as a reading culture. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana put it, “those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it”. And it’s through stories and textbooks that we learn the mistakes not to make.

In South Africa, however, 51% of homes don’t have access to leisure books and 85% of the population lives beyond the reach of a public library. Literacy levels among children don’t look to promising either – only 13% of all South African learners in the foundation phase achieve the minimum international benchmark, says Rhodes University.

Mobile phones, of course, are one obvious way to try and redress this imbalance. Kids may not have access to books, but almost every household has a phone. The latest attempt to get books out via handsets is the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign, which aims to help improve literacy in South Africa, has partnered with Mxit Reach to launch a new app on Monday 8th September, International Literacy Day.

Nal’ibali will give children and parents literacy tips and access to stories in all eleven official languages.

“Research shows that being told stories and being read to at home are the things most likely to help make children successful learners at school,” explains Carole Bloch, director of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA), which is behind Nal’ibali. “Stories, particularly when read or heard in home languages, help children develop their language skills and imagination as well as their thinking and problem-solving skills.”

The Nal’ibali app will be available to both smartphones and feature phones.

“Mobile penetration is now over 100% in the country,” said Bloch. “By harnessing this tidal wave of mobile communication technology use in our country, we hope to get even more adults reading and enjoying stories with their children so it becomes part of their daily lives,” says Bloch.

Stories will not only be available in text format but also audio, so parents and kids can listen to stories to help develop their listening skills.

“Coming soon will be a multilingual rhyme library for use with babies and very young children, as well as an ‘Ask the Experts’ feature, whereby users can submit reading and writing questions they may have related to their children’s literacy learning, and receive an answer from a Nal’ibali literacy expert,” adds Maru Van Der Merwe, Mxit Reach’s project manager.

You can subscribe to the Nal’ibali app from the apps section on Mxit. To read about how one Joburg activist is also using Facebook to create phone-based reading groups in Diepsloot, click here.

[Source – Nal’ibali, Image – Shutterstock]