Reflections on societal reading: the case of Rwanda.

Author:Ruterana, Pierre Canisius

The development of life-long reading interests and reading habits is a constant process which begins in the home, improves systematically in the school and is carried on in later life through the influences of the general cultural atmosphere and the conscious efforts of public education and public libraries (Bamberger 1975: 43).

Background and Context

This reflection addresses the publicly felt problem of a lack of a reading culture in Rwanda (Baleeta, 2005; Parry, 2005; Ndikubwayezu, 2009; Ruterana, 2012). Rwanda is located a few degree south of the Equator, bordered by Uganda, Tanzania, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. According to a Ministry of Education (MINEDUC, 2013) report, the literacy rate among the Rwandan population aged between 15 and 24 years old was 83.7%, and the literacy rate among people aged 15 and above was 69.7%. This means that the remaining (16.3% and 30.3% respectively) were illiterate in the year 2010. The presentation thus explores home literacy practices which pave the way for lifelong learning through the development of reading habits. It is based on four studies, with different perspectives that give converge to the ways of developing a reading culture and how literacy events can reflect societal issues. The study also investigated the experiences of literacy practices among tertiary and primary students, reflections of stakeholders on how to cater for emergent literacy, and reading culture in Rwanda. In addition, this was inspired by the sociocultural perspective of literacy development (Vygotsky, 1978; Street, 1993, 1996; Prinsloo & Breier, 1996; Barton, 2001; Verhoeven & Snow, 2001) as well as an emergent literacy perspective (Teale & Sulzby, 1986; Neuman & Roskos, 1997; Tracey & Morrow, 2006).

Government authorities and the media in Rwanda often speak about the lack of a reading culture and low levels of literacy among the Rwandan population slow down the implementation of public policies (Ministry of Finance and Economic Planning [MINECOFIN], 2007). Yet, the benefits of a reading culture are numerous, and should be acknowledged, as highlighted in one of Minister Habineza's keynote addresses wherein he noted:

The reading culture is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. Becoming a skilled and adaptable reader enhances the chances of success at school and beyond. Reading is not just for school, it is for life. Reading, in all its variety, is vital to our becoming better informed, having a better understanding of ourselves and others, and to our development as thoughtful, constructive contributors to a democratic and cohesive society (as cited in Ndikubwayezu, 2009: 11).

Here Habineza emphasized that most Rwandans do not find interest in reading because they are not aware of the advantages associated with it. It is therefore the responsibility of those who are enlightened (authorities, teachers, researchers, parents and others) to showcase the value of reading and pass it on to the younger generation in order to give them a chance to be the best they can be in life. This does, however, not demean the long and rich oral tradition that was a vehicle for oral literacy before the coming of print literacy, but instead offers a complementary addition.

The overall assumption of this presentation is that reading above and beyond the basic search for information is a lifelong educational activity of capital importance for the entire population. And in this context, the promotion of the reading habit has been on UNESCO's agenda since 1972 with the proclamation of the International Book Year with one of the themes of the year to promote reading habits (Bamberger, 1975). This promotion of the reading agenda was thus retained because it was believed that many people's literacy acquired in or outside school could be lost simply because 'reading is not a part of their cultural environment, and books attuned to their tastes are not easily accessible' (Idem, p. 38). To perpetuate this UNESCO has devoted the date of April 23 every year as World Book Day, and the theme for 2011 was retained: "paying a world-wide tribute to books and authors, encouraging everyone, and in particular young people, to discover the pleasure of reading."

Indeed, research in reading claims that reading is an important part of modern education (Mialaret, 1975; Totemeyer, 1994; Rosenberg, 2003). And in a profound way, reading is essential for people to increase their knowledge and awareness of other cultures and ways of thinking. In his treaty on learning to read, Mialaret (1975) remarks that extensive reading, i.e., reading above and beyond basic or functional reading, fosters the reader's personal, moral and intellectual growth; it is a source of inspiration and entertainment, and it gives us insight into ourselves and others. He also emphasized that these benefits can only accumulate maximally if readers choose to read during their leisure time, and if reading becomes a lifelong habit. Additionally, philosopher James Russel Lowel (quoted by Robinson & Good, 1987) in his Democracy and Other Addresses: Books and Libraries (1893) describe the value of extensive reading as follows,

That is the key which admits us to the whole world of thought and fancy and imagination; to the company of saint and sage, of the wisest and wittiest moment that enables us to see with the keenest eye, hear with the finest ears, and listen to the sweetest voices of all times (Robinson & Good, 1987: iv).

From both Mialaret and Russel Lowel, I deduce that making a nation a reading one is equipping it with the most reliable tool for enhancing literacy levels and a way to ensue advantages. Thanks to reading, we have an inexhaustible source of knowledge and information. Thus, it is the most effective way to learn more throughout human life, and consequently, the evolution, multiplicity and diversity of human knowledge requires everyone to continually read for the acquisition of more knowledge. This reasoning is in line with Denoyer (1980) who holds that the education of men and women continues into adolescence and adulthood through reading. Moreover, Mialaret (1975) suggests that reading is a faithful friend, a true friend that does not betray. Hence, he believes that anybody who likes reading is a saved person--saved from ignorance, boredom and loneliness.

However, in several literate societies there is an increasing number of aliterates, i.e., people who are able to read but choose not to (Beers, 1996). In this respect, my contribution towards building a literate and reading society is to raise Rwandans' awareness of their essential role in laying strong foundations for literacy among children and lifelong reading habits in the population.

In Rwanda, like in many other African societies, there is a predominance of oral communication in people's daily interactions, which makes people depend and rely on oral sources for their information and communication (Dike, 1995; Kwikiriza, 2000; Parry, 2000; Rosenberg, 2003; Commeyras & Mazile, 2011). Hence, it is common to hear people saying that reading culture in Africa is poor or simply inexistent. Juxtaposing this situation, Commeyras and Mazile (2011) in their study on the culture of reading among primary school teachers in Botswana emphasized that the rich oral traditions in many African nations seem to eclipse the print culture. Indeed, before the colonisation of Africa, the oral tradition was Africa's initial form of literacy wherein people's wisdom, norms, values and language were basically transmitted by word of mouth, and thus, traditional practices were learned by the young as they observed what their elders were doing or saying. And usually, there was story telling in the evening around the fireplace where there were riddles, tongue twisters, metaphors being conveyed as well as idiomatic expressions to deliver messages of wisdom through songs and dances to fashion good behaviour in the young and in helping them to grow wisely as useful members of the community. Hence, cautiously, adults taught children tales, traditional songs, riddles, tongue twisters, nursery rhymes, myths, legends and proverbs in a bid to give them a full understanding of their cultural heritage (Rugamba, 1981).

This oral tradition in most Rwandan households where family members would tell tales usually in the evenings before going to bed is documented by the Reverend Father Hurel (1922: 2), he writes:

Tout le monde, jeunes et vieux connaissent sur le bout de doigt la plupart de contes, et cependant personne ne s 'en lasse. On les ecoute toujours avec le meme enthousiasme. Nous en avons maintes et maintes fois fait l 'experience nous-memes, soit a l 'ecole avec des enfants ou des jeunes gens, soit dans d'autres reunions composees exclusivement d'hommes pris au hasard dans la masse. La plupart prechent une morale qui ne ferait pas mauvaise figure dans nos pays civilises et chretiens. La vanite, la suffisance, la gourmandise, la...

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