Tag: literacy

The booksellers of South Sudan

In 2012, as civil war loomed – and with just a quarter of the South Sudan’s population able to read and write – Awak Bior’s decision to found a bookshop may have seemed risky. But for Bior it was a necessity.

“Literacy rates are very low in South Sudan,” she says, sitting on a wooden bench at Leaves bookshop in the capital Juba. “It’s to create a way for people to see that reading is a pleasurable thing; it’s something that can give you some advantage personally and professionally.”

Bior had been a frequent traveller between South Sudan and the UK, where she grew up, with her bags stuffed full of books. Her own love of reading was nurtured by regular visits to her local library with her parents. Now, aided by a small but enthusiastic team, she runs South Sudan’s leading bookshop.

The country’s few other book stores mainly sell religious books or textbooks; Leaves’ wooden bookcases are lined with the latest novels and non-fiction from the UK, east Africa and elsewhere, while also promoting a culture of reading through public debates and book launches.

The small bookshop with big ambitions has already attracted devoted customers. Dhieu Williams, a radio presenter, is a regular visitor. He recently picked up a copy of Fidel Castro’s autobiography, My Life. “It’s not only me reading the books I buy, it’s my cousins and brothers as well,” he says.

Peter Biar is an even greater advocate for reading, a passion he traces back to stumbling across a quote by Cicero – “A room without books is like a body without a soul.” Biar, like many young men in South Sudan, was a child soldier “educated in the struggle”. Now he treasures every book he owns.

Leaves has more male customers than female, a reflection of the fact that only 16% of women can read and write, and even fewer have the kind of income which allow them to buy books, which can cost over 100 South Sudanese pounds, around £13.

Women with their faces painted with the South Sudanese flag pose during celebrations marking three years of independence in Juba on July 9,2014.
Women with their faces painted with the South Sudanese flag pose during celebrations marking three years of independence in Juba on July 9,2014.

In December 2013, civil war broke out once again in South Sudan. Thousands have been killed and nearly two million displaced. This makes Leaves even more relevant, the bookshop’s manager, Yohanis Riek, believes.

Speaking to a local radio station, he says that “now more than ever we need books. Self development is key to resolving the South Sudan crisis.” The fighting, largely carried out by young, illiterate soldiers, has also pushed South Sudanese citizens from every walk of life to consider what sort of state they wish to live in.

The rebel leader, Riek Machar, prominently displayed a copy of Why Nations Fail, by political scientists Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, in his bush headquarters. Machar and other politicians have been calling for federalism, and there is increased public criticism about the political failures that led to war.

“We have more South Sudanese customers now than we did during the time of stability,” Leaves’ manager Riek says. “Maybe they are interested in knowing more about politics, and how they can live together.”

The government, led by Salva Kiir, is also being accused of clamping down on dissent, at one point indicating there should be no open public discussions of federalism. So far, Leaves’ public debates have not been affected.

Founder Bior says freedom of expression is vital for South Sudan’s future. “What we are trying to encourage is an environment where people can exchange ideas, debate and be able to come to solutions together. I think when you look at different countries that are successful, one of the things they have in common is that you can access information. If censorship starts to become more common in South Sudan, that would be a disaster, because it would hinder development and social improvement.”

Bior says the next goal is to move out of the current small premises into a bigger bookshop, to create a refuge for readers. “Most people do not read even if they want to read, because their houses are crowded, they don’t have private space.

“Electricity is another issue. In Juba in the evenings, children gather around security guard compounds just so they can read and study. We’d love to be able to fill that gap in providing a place for people to read, whether for pleasure or for study.”

James Copnall for the Guardian Africa Network

Nuruddin Farah: Getting kids back to school in Somalia

A child’s right to education is as sacrosanct as a child’s need for water, food, shelter and peace. But tragically the education system, like much of Somalia, has been virtually destroyed over the last 20 years by the terrible, senseless civil war. Now only four out of every 10 children go to school – one of the lowest enrollment rates anywhere in the world. And the numbers are far lower for girls, who are often kept at home for housework or pushed into an early marriage.

I travelled home to Somalia back in 1996, which was after only five years of civil war and already the schools had stopped functioning. At that time, I told anyone who would listen that education needed a kick-start and in the intervening years the situation has only got worse and worse. Students attend religious schools learning Arabic rather than Somali, and secondary education has been almost wiped out. So, teenage boys were attracted to the militias, like al-Shabab and other militant groups, for the food and money they provided.

When I was a young child, we lived in the Somali-speaking part of Ethiopia. There were no decent schools at that time there either. So my father took it upon himself to travel around, recruit a few teachers and personally pay them. I got to go to school – and as I was nearing the end of my primary education, as luck would have it, some missionaries set up a secondary school.

I clearly remember after a week at the secondary school thinking that this was a different world from the one in which my parents and my grandparents had grown up. This was because I could see myself through the eyes of the world to which I was being introduced. Through education, through books, I was given the chance to expand my universe far above that of my classmates and my parents. And this was all due to the exposure that I had to other languages, other cultures and other world views.

As a child I was able to place myself in the shoes of a child growing up in England or in America and my ambitions flew far ahead of my contemporaries in the same town simply because they didn’t have an education. The chances I had in the classroom quite simply made me the person I am today and gave me the opportunity to make a success of my life.

(Pic: Unicef)
(Pic: Unicef)

I believe that if you give any child the opportunity to read and study they will use the opportunity to take themselves – even if only in their imaginations – out of misery, out of civil war and out of strife to a higher plane.

Literacy also changes an entire community, an entire nation. It is not only schooling that is important, it is the idea of training the mind that becomes important. A child who attends school regularly behaves differently from one who is a truant and is more likely to be self-destructive and more likely to break rules.

It is discipline, patience and continuous learning that educates the mind, that makes a person produce peace: first of all within themselves and then moving that peace outside of themselves and sharing it with many, many others.

A peace process is therefore just another form of schooling – training adults’ minds to accept that there is no alternative to peace. And above all, that is what Somalia needs right now.

Nuruddin Farah is a prominent Somali novelist. He was awarded the 1998 Neustadt International Prize for Literature. 

On September 8 2013 – World Literacy Day – Somali education authorities with support from Unicef launched the Go 2 School initiative, an ambitious three-year campaign that plans to provide one million children and youth in Somalia with access to quality education. Farah and Beninois musician Angelique Kidjo have urged support for it.