South African programme to promote children's literature through technology is awarded UNESCO’s literacy prize

'Using digital technologies to promote children's literature in South Africa's indigenous languages' of Puku Children's Literature Foundation in South Africa is awarded this year’s UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize.

’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

Puku Children's Literature Foundation, a non-governmental organization established in 2009, has always been inspired by Nelson Mandela’s vision and has always believed in harnessing the digital space to build a reading culture rooted in indigenous storytelling traditions in all South African languages.

The programme aims for reading promotion and book development to help ensure that all children, especially those living in the most materially deprived areas, have access to books in all South African languages.

Moreover, Puku promotes and preserves indigenous languages through children’s literature by providing training to mainly parents, writers and educators on reviewing children’s books, and on writing children’s literature. With the pandemic’s physical distancing requirement, such trainings were shifted from face-to-face workshops to online learning sessions, producing what is the world’s first tutorials on the subject in an African language.

The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the need for South African children and young people to become independent readers and have access to reading resources in the languages they most needed. As the pandemic forced a shift to distance learning, the task of producing enduring and memorable content in all South African languages through digital platforms became urgent.

Through webinars, radio and social media, Puku conducted workshops and organized a campaign to promote indigenous languages, with a special focus on the promotion of reading in indigenous languages from early childhood. As a thought leader in the children’s literature space and acting as a strategic convenor, Puku was able to connect institutions and organizations, leading experts in the indigenous language communities with voices on the ground.

While COVID-19 forced increased uptake in virtual communication, making it easier and cheaper to organize meetings that reached a larger audience with less time and financial investment, it also brought the emotional burden of lacking physical interaction with other human beings, especially the direct contact with the children. Other significant challenges include the great digital divide whereby those who do not have access to infrastructure, devices, and data are excluded.

 Looking beyond the Literacy Prize, Puku hopes to continue its expansion in the Southern African region. The foundation aims to mobilize the resources needed to have a complete digital refresh and upscale their website into Pouteria, an online encyclopedia for children’s books in all Southern African languages.

In the spirit of International Literacy Day, Puku Foundation acknowledges the vital role in which extraordinary storytellers, educators, writers and language practitioners have to cultivate literary traditions within linguistic communities. ‘We need to harness their talent and abilities to populate our digital platforms with the enduring and memorable content that our children desperately need.  Just as Nelson Mandela wanted all children in the world to experience the wonder of books, so do we want all children to have access to the digital spaces where they can enlarge their earthly dwelling place with the magic of stories’.  Shares Ms Elinor Sisulu, Executive Director of Puku Children's Literature Foundation.

This year’s UNESCO International Literacy Prizes will be awarded to six outstanding literacy programmes from Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Guatemala, India, Mexico and South Africa on the occasion of International Literacy Day. UNESCO will host a two-day online International Conference on 8 and 9 September. A special session with the Laureates of this year’s Prizes 2021 will be held on 9 September highlighting ‘inclusive distance and digital learning’.

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