Jade Jacobsohn, managing director at Nal’ibali
Jade Jacobsohn, managing director at Nal’ibali, recently wrote the following response to the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) report highlighting SA literacy levels. The report sheds light on South Africa’s devastating literacy crisis, revealing that 78% of grade four learners in South Africa cannot read for meaning. Here’s what Jacobsohn recommends we do to solve the country’s disastrous illiteracy rates:
Where will you be in ten years’ time? Whether it’s a growing business or growing family, we all make plans for our future. Yet our future selves are either enabled or limited by our broader context. So, what is our national context in a generation’s time?
Results from a global literacy study last week paint a devastating picture. The Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) assessing children’s reading comprehension has placed South African children last in fifty countries
The stats? 78% of Grade Four learners in South Africa cannot read for basic meaning in any national language. In other words, eight out of ten nine-year-olds in South Africa are currently functionally illiterate.
This survey presents the socio-economic equivalent of Cape Town’s taps running dry on Day Zero. Simply put, it’s the most urgent wake-up call our country has had on what our future looks like, and we need to respond accordingly.
There’s a reason the PIRLS test targeted Grade Fours. The age is a tipping point: if a child remains functionally illiterate at age nine, there is a strong correlation to them remaining so, which in turn leads to an inevitably steep school drop-out shelf.
A 78% illiteracy rate in Grade Four means the next generation will enter the workforce without these very basic skills needed to raise themselves out of poverty. It means a generation without the capacity to learn, to teach, to lead. More alarmingly, it means a generation unable to pass along literacy to their own children, exacerbating the situation still further with every passing year.
In the United States, there is an alarmingly precise correlation between the number of illiterate third grade boys and future incarceration statistics (the United States, for reference, scored just 4% on the PIRLS survey). In South Africa, boys have fallen behind to such an extent that they are now a full year of learning behind girls of the same age – the second highest gender gap in the world.
The PIRLS survey also attempted to quantify social inhibitors to education, such as bullying amongst peers. The results? We are also world leaders there, with 42% of South African Grade Fours experiencing bullying weekly (by comparison, 15% of learners reported the same experience in the US and UK).
What kind of future can we build when our children cannot build empathy?
Government is putting urgent plans in place to secure our resources – sustainable water, electricity supply and so on. We all weigh in on these because South Africans care about what our country looks like and we’re willing to make a noise when we feel a lack of leadership on these matters.
Where is the noise here?
If literacy is everybody’s problem, then it’s also everybody’s solution.
These results need to be the rallying call to the heart of our nation.
The good news – and there is much of it – is that change can happen. After all, Japan and more recently Chile, turned around their literacy rates by simply making it a holistic national priority.
But how do we start with a similar approach in South Africa? Where do we begin?
Take heart that many of us began a long time ago. NGOs have determinedly been stepping up to the plate, introducing and quietly maintaining extraordinary, effective, and targeted initiatives to support literacy development across the country.
Nal’ibali, for example, operates country-wide to spark children’s potential by creating opportunities for children to fall in love with books and stories in home languages as well as English. Research proves that regular reading and a strong foundation of language in children’s mother tongues are two of the most significant indicators of future academic success – even more than socio-economic status. That’s food for thought in a country where the poverty trap seems inescapable.
We are hardly tackling this problem alone – it takes a nation to nurture a reading culture and Nal’ibali works hand-in-hand with hundreds of partners. Together we’ve seen extraordinary successes in our five years of operation. We are fighting the odds and winning; helping to root a culture of reading in South African by immersing children, caregivers, and communities in great and well told stories in relaxed and meaningful ways rather than focusing on the mechanical literacy instruction so common in the classroom.
We are weaving a web of support and creative solutions that, given enough backing, will catch our learners when they fall through the cracks of the formal education system. Just imagine what we could do if our work was amplified and enthusiastically championed across the country!
It’s time for us to join forces.
Those who can’t in financial or practical terms can still play a vital part, simply by picking up a book. Reading or giving a good book to one child may feel like a tiny act, but the ramifications of these small, everyday actions can have startling consequences down the line. Stories teach us at a linguistic level – the basic vocabulary, spelling and grammar pour in unconsciously. But stories also teach us at a human level – they help us to imagine worlds and possibilities that are different to the ones we are currently experiencing.
In South Africa, right now, that’s surely a talent that every one of us needs to learn to develop.
For more information about the Nal’ibali campaign or to access children’s stories in a range of SA languages visit www.nalibali.org and www.nalibali.mobi or find us on Facebook and Twitter: nalibaliSA.
Published in The Witness
Many writers have found inspiration for their own work in the great epics – The Iliad and The Odyssey – attributed to Homer. Not least among these, in recent years, have been Elizabeth Cook (Achilles, 2001), Margaret Atwood (The Penelopiad, 2005), Peter Ackroyd (The Fall of Troy, 2007), David Malouf (Ransom, 2009) and Madeline Miller, with her award-winning The Song of Achilles (2011). Now, South African writer, Jane Fox, presents The Unofficial Odyssey, a playful, highly imaginative, irreverent version of the Trojan War and its aftermath, based on her reading of Robert Fagles’ translations of Homer and on the plays of Aeschylus and Euripides.
While the arc of the famous narrative is evident – from the abduction of Helen of Sparta to the trickery of the Wooden Horse and Odysseus’ subsequent perilous, decade-long voyage home to Ithaca – and while the major protagonists are featured, Fox’s focus is on Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her women friends, left at home when the men sail for Troy.
Penelope’s closest friend and former lover, Sappho, is, like her namesake, something of a poet, and, in the absence of the men and of any news of the progress of the war, she suggests that the women – and the resident bard, Phemius – compose stories that reflect the possible development of events. Each of the women will be responsible for an instalment and will position herself in the narrative. Phemius will make a contribution and is responsible for committing the work to papyrus.
Each of the women bears the name of a female protagonist in the original saga, so that when she tells her imagined instalment, she is, in fact, reflecting, to some extent, the part she plays in the original.
The assembled Ithacan women include Iphigenia (named after the hapless daughter of Agamemnon); Cassandra (whose namesake is the prophetic Trojan princess to whom no one listens); Circe (named after the beguiling enchantress whom Odysseus encounters on the island of Aeaea); Calypso (the equally beguiling nymph with whom Odysseus spends seven years on the island of Ogygia); and Nausicaa (the Phaeacian princess who rescues Odysseus when he is shipwrecked on her father’s island).
In addition to the contributions of these women, Penelope herself, Sappho, Laertes (the elderly father of Odysseus) and Telemachus (Odysseus’ son) are given voice in their own chapters. Thus the imagined sequence of events unfolding beyond Ithaca is revealed, along with developments at home: Telemachus grows into a young man during his father’s protracted absence; there is the death of Odysseus’ mother; the invasion of Odysseus’ home by increasing numbers of loutish suitors (whom Fox dubs ‘refugees’); and Penelope’s famously duplicitous weaving of a shroud for Laertes. Even Odysseus’ dog, Argos, makes intermittent appearances and contributes to the poignancy of the conclusion.
Told in a jaunty, colloquial style and with considerable imaginative chutzpah, Fox’s novel is a light-hearted view of the origins of the famous texts. The Unofficial Odyssey is an elegant publication, coffee-table rather than bookshelf size, with striking illustrations by Ronel Wheeler.
Published in the Sunday Times
Princess Olga – A Wild and Barefoot Romanov
HH Princess Olga Romanoff with Coryne Hall (Shepheard-Walwyn Books, R670)
There was a fizzing anticipation at the lodge as a gaggle of celebrities, television crew, musicians, journalists and “influencers” alighted from luxury 4x4s. Suit bags and makeup cases were hoisted, sunglasses adjusted, Instagrams snapped and tapped out and the whispers went around – where was she?
“She” is HH Princess Olga Andreevna Romanoff of royal Russian descent, daughter of the late Prince Andrew Alexandrovich Romanoff. He was the eldest nephew of the murdered Tsar Nicholas II, born to a life of splendour in the Winter Palace in St Petersburg before he escaped the Bolshevik carnage in 1918, living out his days in the Kent countryside.
She was in South Africa as the guest of the Karkloof Safari Villas, now under new ownership by Colleen Glaeser – an ardent royalist – who wanted to relaunch the lodge with a grand party. And what a grand party it was: the dining room glinted with crystal and gold amid drifts of white orchids; the keyboardist from Prime Circle was flying the grand piano; cameras whirred, presenters presented and, finally, the princess appeared.
If the guests were expecting a ball gown with a tiara and gems, a modest Fabergé cabochon ring, perhaps, they were disappointed. Princess Olga was dressed in a short red dress and a good pashmina. At 67, she is slim and athletic, her white-blonde hair cut in a bob and cerulean eyes that could etch glass. She seemed bemused at the angling and posing and susurration of feathery false eyelashes.
She was also launching her new memoir Princess Olga – A Wild and Barefoot Romanov, a gossipy, galloping account.
Sitting on the sunny deck the next morning, looking over the lush reserve, the princess was clearly more comfortable in her jeans and fleece. She is quick and funny, throwing away delicious anecdotes: “Queen Mary was a kleptomaniac, of course.” The old bat would spy something beautiful at a friend’s house – the Sheraton chairs, pretty china – and the host would be obliged to give it to her. “And then people got wise and they used to hide the good stuff before she came. There’s a room apparently in Buckingham Palace known as Mary’s Store where all the stuff she collected is kept. I think they’re trying to return pieces to the right families.”
She is too discreet to be drawn on her views of the current Royals, saying only how much she likes Camilla Parker-Bowles. “She’s a sensible woman, a hunting, shooting, fishing now ex-smoker. She’s a good egg.” And that Princess Margaret was “a little difficult”. If she was staying at a house party and wanted to stay up until 4am, no one was allowed to go to bed whether they were exhausted or ill. “My mother was a bit like that. When she went to bed the whole house party had to go too.”
Princess Olga’s mother, Nadine, was a Scottish heiress “and a crashing snob”. She was the widowed prince’s second wife; they married after he arrived in exile in Britain. They lived in a rackety pile in Kent called Provender House, which dates from the 13th century. Nadine’s family had lived there for more than 100 years.
Baby Olga was neurotically cosseted – her mother would spray guests with DDT before they could come near the infant, and she was not allowed to drink tap water, only Malvern mineral water. There were nannies and governesses – some dodgy, some greatly loved – and Olga loathed schoolwork, pretending she was going to the loo and disappearing to ride her beloved pony. She had no real education.
Her father seems a sad and lonely figure. As an impoverished prince he’d lost everything, he had no money, she writes, but he felt safe at Provender. He changed the spelling of the name from Romanov to the more common Romanoff, and it was believed that he was still on Stalin’s hit list.
As Olga tells it, he “shut the door” on court life, eschewed company and dressed in grotty old clothes. He cooked their meals in the manner of the French chefs from the Russian palaces. He was stone deaf, probably as a result of frequent close gun salutes in his early life. As a boy he had roller-skated down the corridors of the Winter Palace, now he was often mistaken for the gardener.
How was the massacre of his family regarded in her home? “It was spoken about from birth that my father had a murdered uncle and cousins but I didn’t realise it was world history until I was about 10. Papa didn’t really talk about it as much as he could have.”
And so Princess Olga grew up – wild and barefoot – on the rambling estate, training fighting cocks to sit on her Wendy house furniture for tea, organising donkey derbies and burning up tractors with the local boys. She started smoking at 11. Her mother was determined she should marry well, “a duke, at least” and she was paraded as a possible bride for Prince Charles. “Well that wasn’t going to happen,” she laughs. “Orthodox Russian for a start! I just raised a finger at all that.”
She eventually married a well-born man but writes little about their marriage and their subsequent divorce. Instead she unfurls fabulous stories, such as that of Prince Felix Yusupov, a well-known transvestite. He once dressed in women’s clothes to go to the Paris Opéra and was so convincing that he caught the eye of King Edward VII. When the king asked to meet that “lovely young woman” Felix scarpered.
There are stories about Princess Olga’s great friend Clarissa Dickson Wright of Two Fat Ladies fame, a notorious alcoholic. “She did like to drink,” Princess Olga writes in typically understated fashion,” and kept gin in a tooth mug next to her sofa bed. “Once she was so desperate that she drank a bottle of my Chanel perfume. And it was perfume, not eau de toilette. I was very angry.”
There’s the Grand Duchess Xenia dropping her fag ends into a bowl of water at her feet so they didn’t smell, tales of ghosts and a spotting of the Loch Ness monster, a pony brought in to the dining room and munching a grand lady’s hat. It is an enthralling book.
Princess Olga now devotes her life to raising funds and restoring her beloved Provender. Much has had to be sold, as her parents died virtually penniless, but some objects remain, like a collection of white crockery with the double-headed black eagle of imperial Russia, used by Nicholas.
She has opened the house for weddings and conducts tours of it herself. She is close to her three grown children and adores being a grandmother. Energetic and forthright, and still devoted to her animals, Princess Olga is, it seems, a very good egg. @michelemagwood
Published in the Sunday Times
Lore of Nutrition: Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs
Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros
Penguin Random House, R290
In July 2015, I became one of few scientists in history to be publicly prosecuted for expressing my opinion.
The “hearing” (more accurately, a full-on legal trial) that the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA) and Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) brought against me lasted 25 days over more than three years. It concluded in April 2017 when the independent panel found me innocent of all charges.
But, despite the massive costs on all sides, the HPCSA has chosen to appeal the verdict. The “hearing” reconvenes in February 2018.
Lore of Nutrition: Challenging Conventional Dietary Beliefs, co-written with investigative journalist Marika Sboros, explains how the hearing came about. It had nothing to do with my tweet. That was just a pretext. It was the inevitable outcome of my decision in December 2010 to change my diet from the high-carbohydrate, low-fat one I had advocated and followed for 33 years, to one high in fat.
In so doing, I turned my back on all I had been taught about optimum human nutrition. I have learned much from my Damascene moment, as I call it. In particular, that the 1977 US Dietary Guidelines, which encouraged us to “make starchy foods the basis of most meals”, are the direct cause of the obesity and diabetes pandemics that now threaten the financial sustainability of medical services globally. The evidence we present (and on which I built my defence in the HPCSA “hearing”) establishes beyond doubt that excessive dietary carbohydrate, not fat, is the real nutrition villain.
The book explains how the publication of The Real Meal Revolution in November 2013 spawned the HPCSA trial. It initiated a debate across all segments of the South African community, which had never before happened in this country, and perhaps in few other countries, if any. And when the public started questioning what they should be eating to be properly healthy, they began to threaten diet orthodoxy. One solution was to silence the messenger – hence the HPCSA hearing.
The first third of the book details actions of colleagues and organisations as they sought to discredit me and my “Banting” diet after my Damascene moment. I have included every single published criticism over six years, in the authors’ own words. I also provide the science to show that all are without foundation. I answer all criticisms fully and transparently.
Sboros writes the middle third of the book, summarising key details of the 25 days in court: The prosecution’s case and their expert witnesses, including their cross-examination; my testimony and cross-examination and that of the “Three Angels” – Nina Teicholz, Dr Zoe Harcombe and Dr Caryn Zinn; leading to the comprehensive not-guilty judgment by Advocate Joan Adams and her committee.
In the book’s final third, I present the evidence that until very recently, perhaps as recently as 60 years ago, humans were much healthier than we are today. I show the key driver of our ill-health: the adoption of the high-carbohydrate diet, which the 1977 US Dietary Guidelines promoted, by persons intolerant to carbohydrates – which turns out to be the majority of humans.
In the final chapter, Sboros summarises the many and glaring “imponderables” that should have prevented this “hearing” from ever happening.
The book is about the distortion and corruption of science that has led to our current state of global ill-health. It provides clear scientific evidence of what we need to do to regain our formerly healthy state.
P H Centre – Photo Gallery & Bookstore is proud to be hosting the launch of Roger Ballen’s latest book, Ballenesque – Roger Ballen: A Retrospective.
This timely and comprehensive retrospective takes a linear path, with personal reflections by Ballen, which are central to this detailed exploration of his style. With over 300 photographs and an introduction by cultural theorist and critic, Robert J. C. Young, Ballenesque offers a new way of looking at the work of one of the world’s most important and original photographers.
As part of the opening, Ballen will give a presentation about his work, with images and videos related to the book and his career. The winner of the Ballenesque Photo Competition will also be announced.
An exciting exhibition, featuring a selection of iconic Ballen images from the artist’s highly acclaimed career runs until the 9th February 2018.
About the Author:
Roger Ballen is an American-born photographer who has lived and worked in South Africa since the 1970s. His previous award-winning books include Platteland (1994), Outland (2001), Shadow Chamber (2005), Boarding House (2009), Asylum of the Birds (2014) and The Theatre of Apparitions (2016). Ballen’s photographs are collected by some of the most important institutions in the world and he has won numerous prestigious awards in photography and filmmaking. Robert J. C. Young is a British postcolonial theorist, cultural critic and historian. He is currently the Dean of Arts and Humanities at New York University Abu Dhabi.
“Education is the new weapon in the liberation struggle, and our youth must arm themselves with books.”
The literacy crisis among South Africa’s youth is worse than expected. It was recently announced that eight out of 10 grade four pupils still cannot ‘read at appropriate level’. Dr Nic Spaull of Sellenbosch University is quoted saying that an inability to read properly means ‘many pupils never get a firm grasp on the first rung of the academic ladder and fall further and further behind.’
Co-creator and former managing director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival (and author!), Jenny Hobbs, composed the following piece on the necessity of nurturing a love of reading among children, including helpful tips on encouraging a reading culture in South Africa:
Here’s the important thing about quality education: it starts with you, parents and caregivers, from the time babies are born. Talking and singing to them, giving them words and songs and stories, is the best way to ensure that they learn to talk and read confidently. These are the building blocks of education and success in life.
• Parents, gogos, caregivers and child minders: talk and sing often to babies and toddlers, passing on the magic of spoken words and singing.
• Speak from the beginning in your mother tongues, adding words and songs from other languages (especially English) as they grow. Languages are easily picked up by small kids and you will be giving them invaluable free skills.
• As soon as they can sit on your lap, tell them stories and read to them from books, magazines or catalogues, letting them turn the pages – however clumsily! – to discover the excitements on the next page.
• Encourage them to talk, chat and tell their own stories. Teach them the songs you sang and the games you played, family history and traditions. Children who own many words talk easily with friends and adults.
• Take them as young as you can to libraries to enjoy exciting, different books and choose some to bring home. Municipal and community libraries are free, and librarians are always ready to help with advice.
• Give children books as presents. Ask at the library for the late, great Chris van Wyk’s Ouma Ruby’s Secret, which tells the story of how his loving grandma bought him books in second-hand shops, always asking him to choose and then read them out loud to her. He only realised when he grew older that she couldn’t read – like so many elders who were denied education.
• Seeing parents read newspapers and books is inspiring for children. Keep books in your home and make reading a cool thing to do.
• All reading is good reading. Look for book sales and street vendors selling comics and well-priced picture and story books. Visit a library to access the online South African book sites for children and teens.
• Enrol children as soon as possible in early learning centres to expose them to new skills and the first formal steps to reading.
• Fight harder and more fiercely for schools with libraries that actively promote reading and a culture of independent learning.
Note: The government mandates weekly library lessons in schools which all receive library allocations, but random bookshelves are not enough. Libraries need assistants to help readers and control the books. For more information, see the downloadable school library booklet at http://www.flf.co.za/schools/.
• Link older children and teens with the FunDza Literacy Trust for daily reading on their cellphones.
• Readers should recommend books they’ve enjoyed and circulate personal libraries in their communities. Record who has borrowed each book by taking a cellphone photo with them holding it.
Surely it’s time for VAT on books to be abolished – it’s a tax on learning!
Online sites for South African children’s & young adult books:
Book Dash: http://bookdash.org/
Children’s Book Network: www.childrensbook.co.za
11-year-old Lindiwe Makhoba from Mangaung, Bloemfontein, the 2017 winner of Nal’ibali’s annual Story Bosso contest
Quotes about reading to live by:
It is my wish that the voice of the storyteller will never die in Africa, that all children in the world may experience the wonder of books, and that they will never lose the capacity to enlarge their earthly dwelling place with the magic of stories. – Nelson Mandela
The key to a healthy society is a thriving community of storytellers. Stories are what really make us human. – Franco Sacchi
Reading books at home is an important part of the early development of children during which they confront in a pleasurable activity those human passions of love and hate, of ambition and desire, of change and hope. – Jonathan Jansen
If we want to break down barriers between ourselves across race, linguistic and cultural lines, we must promote reading. Fiction forces you to live in other people’s worlds. It develops our empathetic capacities … it can and does help to build bridges. Reading will help us to humanise each other. In a time of violence, we must spread the word about the power of books to make South African life a little easier. – Eusebius McKaiser
A book can change your life. You can read yourself out of poverty. – Annari van der Merwe
Books not only change the mind, they can change the course of society. – Jonathan Jansen
You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture – just get people to stop reading them. – Ray Bradbury
Entries for the 2018 Caine Prize for African Writing are now open!
A cash prize of £10,000 is up for grabs for the winning author and a travel award for each of the short-listed candidates (up to five in all). The shortlisted candidates will also receive a Prize of £500. The winner is also invited to go to three literature festivals in Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria.
Published authors who wish to add ‘Caine Prize contributor’ to their CVs have until 31 January 2018 to submit their entry via their publishers.
Take note – unpublished work, as well as children’s books, factual writing, plays, biographies and works shorter than 3000 words will not be considered.
The Caine Prize for African Writing aims to bring African stories and writers to a global audience via the art of short story writing.
Click here for the complete guideline.
Today marks day one of the annual Abantu Book Festival!
Abantu Book Festival has become an annual pilgrimage for black writers and readers held in Soweto to celebrate the rich and diverse literary heritage emerging from the African continent. The second edition is planned for 7-10 December 2017.
While the book remains the central medium of the festival, we have poetry and musical performances, writing and publishing workshops, panel discussions and in-conversations, as well as film-screening woven into the mix. The best poets, novelists, playwrights, biographers, literary scholars, musicians, actors, activists, thinkers, and readers from as far as can be imagined, take over the historic location of Soweto and make it a literary village.
The day events are held at the Eyethu Lifestyle Centre in Mofolo, and the night sessions at the Soweto Theatre in Jabulani. Entry is free for day events, and at night tickets cost R20.00 only. The designated bookseller has a fine selection of titles by black writers on sale for the duration of the festival.
This is the space we’ve been yearning for. Let there be healing.
Click here for the 2017 programme.
Established as a title in 1896, Ons Klyntji has risen, died, been reborn, died off again and finally been reinvented somewhere in the murky 1990s to become what it is today: a 144 page, pocket-sized annual of the doen en late of South Africans at home and abroad. Afrikaans and English sit side by side (plus bits and bobs of other languages) to create a kind of restless vernacular in poem-form, short story-shape, photographs, cartoons, funny things, rude things, sad things and just plain truths too.
The 2017/18 edition is subtitled Ons Klyntji Internasionaal because it happens to feature so many stories and contributions from places elsewhere in the world.
Come celebrate the Cape Town launch with us at The Book Lounge on Thursday 7 December at 6 pm sharp.
Readings by Annie Klopper, Engela Duvenage, Toast Coetzer, Hanru Niemand, Vusumuzi Mpofu, Erns Grundling, Chris Wait, Sjaka Septembir, Matthew Freemantle, Donné-Louise Grobler, Louis Duvenage, Leila Ruth, Fourie Botha and Alice Inggs.
Zines will be on sale. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org
Oh yes, there will be free wine!
Ons Klyntji is sponsored by Oppikoppi music festival and Woordfees.