Fruitful African tales refresh reading skills

5th September 2003 at 01:00
Proverbs were flowing at last month's third Pan-African Reading for All conference on literacy without borders. It brought together around 600 educationists, including storytellers, from Africa, Europe and North America.

The agenda was to brainstorm, and even "story storm", innovative ideas to combat illiteracy, as part of Uganda Book Week and International Book Fair.

The five-day event featured colourful corridor displays in the Nile International Conference Centre in Kampala to highlight the story as an important literacy tool. One display illustrated a tale entitled "Maggoty mango", which unfolded as Apuuli, an unsuspecting mango-eater, bites into his juicy snack.

Not only the story bore fruit but the teacher's planning around the story.

One teacher-trainer from Jubilee College, Kampala, said: "You will find that this kind of story, about a local fruit or emblem, offers something that the child can relate to."

Another display showed a coloured diagram resembling a spinning top. This was a story circle divided into eight segments representing sections of the plot. The pupils were asked to collaborate on writing titles for each sequence. An imaginative teacher then introduced a science topic to cross the curricular divide.

Another story about a hat-seller trading hats in four colours brought in numeracy, as children could calculate how many hats were sold at what price in a different shade - a tale that could be adapted to suit various age groups.

Delegates learned that Africa has an abundance of folk tales, which could be harnessed in the campaign to stimulate reading. Stories are passed down the generations in Ugandan families, usually by the grandmother, and often feature wise characters with moral messages. Proverbs, riddles, and tongue-twisters proved a vibrant source of amusement for learners, especially if they were created with artistic letter cards.

During one seminar, US Peace Corps volunteer teachers demonstrated a "story scavenger" game in which a story is separated into sections and given to different groups of children.

They answered simple questions by analysing the text before passing it on.

The fastest won the prize.

In a rural Ugandan community, as in the rest of Africa, the supply of paper and writing materials is limited. This was not a hindrance as recycling was much in evidence. One class showed how passion-fruit seeds used to make letters were glued to recycled cement bags, and tree bark was mashed then boiled to create a dark maroon paint. During the Uganda Book Week, pupils visited reading tents in the city for storytelling sessions.

One performance closed with the phrase: "It is reading which makes a meal."

The next Reading for All conference will be held in Swaziland in 2005.

The organisers include the International Reading Association, the International Development Committee-Africa and the National Book Trust of Uganda.

James Robinson is an international storyteller

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