A case for Setswana, by Lorato Trok

October 2017

The future of every nation is dependent on its children. In South Africa, for many years children’s stories have been published in English and Afrikaans, languages mostly spoken by a minority of the population. Even though the publishing industry has changed over the years, publishing children’s stories remains dominated by English and Afrikaans. Children whose home languages are not English and Afrikaans are still largely denied enjoying books in their home languages as very few books are published and available in African languages. This poses a challenge for establishing a good foundation for children to learn to read, write and simply enjoy stories in their home languages.

In South Africa, books which are available in African languages, especially children’s books, have mostly been translated from English with foreign themes. In most cases the translation is appalling and mediocre. Earlier this year (April 2017) the Parliamentary Committee on Arts and Culture formed a technical task team of Library and Information Specialists in the country. This team was tasked with writing an LIS policy for public libraries in South Africa.

The team travelled across the nine provinces of the country meeting with librarians and management teams of public libraries to discuss, among other things,  challenges faced by libraries, overcoming the challenges and what is already working. In Gauteng, the indaba was held at the National Library of South Africa. Below are some of the points discussed at the indaba and the problems librarians indicated they encountered:

Do you have any comments on the collections (print, multimedia and electronic) in your library? Do you feel for example that they have adequate coverage of South African literature and languages?

  • Users don’t take out books in African languages- they complain about the poor translation quality and side-lining of books in African languages.
  • Decrease in library budget affect collections- there is no balanced collection- books are governed by licences and it’s too difficult to secure books.
  • Libraries have encouraged writing competitions in indigenous languages but schools have not taken interest. Some teachers have indicated that they will only enter their schools in writing competitions where the learners are required to write in English.
  • Self-published books are a big problem- stories are unedited and therefore there are too many grammatical errors- there’ve been instances where politicians impose self-published books of authors they know, riddled with mistakes but the librarians have resisted.
  • Users have complained of stories in African languages being too moralistic and therefore a turn off.

What are the barriers to “access to information” in your situation in Gauteng?

  • Librarians indicated legislation- internal and provincial red tape policies as barriers access to information.
  • Speed at which new books get to libraries.
  • Not reaching out to communities- involving CBOs, NGOs and civil organisations in communities and finding ways of working together.

Libraries can only function with an active public use. An unsatisfied and demoralized public means reduced budget for libraries. Users complaining about the quality of books available in African languages puts to rest the long held myth by some publishers that South Africans don’t want to read in African languages. If the public are exposed to books in African languages of the highest quality, how are they expected to read in those languages? Teachers not wanting children to write in African languages may also be an attribute of a lack of accessibility to books in African languages in their schools.

In March 2017, PEN SA and IBBY SA funded a two day “Children’s literacy, literature and multilingual storybook production/translation” seminar facilitated by PRAESA. The seminar was to create an opportunity for literacy promotion agencies, government and the private sector to work intensively with one another to assess progress and challenges, and agree on the next practical steps.

Sarah Howie of PRLS (Progress in International Literacy Reading Study), a study designed to measure trends in achievement and to indicate growth or decline within a global context, indicated during her presentation of the study report for South Africa that 50% of Sepedi learners are not reading and writing in their home languages. South African children were assessed in English and Afrikaans, even though a large percentage of them identify African languages as their home languages. She also indicated that there is no material available for children in their home languages, and that Sepedi translations used in the assessment were appalling.

The report ended with this observation:

South African learners’ performance in the PIRLS assessments reinforces the need for reading instruction practices that address the difficulties in language and reading in both the Foundation and Intermediate Phases. Unless children are fully functional in the language of teaching and learning they are at considerable risk of failure or repeated failure in primary school and dropping out of school at secondary level. Therefore, the continued and close monitoring of reading literacy in all the languages in which it is offered, is critical for the successful development of all individuals in the schooling and training systems, and it needs to remain one of South Africa’s priorities in the immediate future.”

South African children fare poorly in assessments not because they are not smart but because they have no access to reading material in their home languages. Puku’s Children Literature Foundation works in reviewing children’s stories in African languages, a step in the right direction for South Africa, for the education system, for libraries and especially so for the publishing industry.

Translation of African languages is a major problem in this country. When children’s books are reviewed, feedback given by reviewers can be used by publishers to include in their subsequent editions when reprinting, the department of education can access the database created through reviews to see what’s available in African languages and authors will have quality feedback on their material and to incorporate it in their writing to improve their work.

Recently, there has been a surge in the number of authors writing children’s stories in African languages, including Setswana. Unfortunately in South Africa, children’s authors are not as celebrated as biographers, political writers, poets and the likes. Not much publicity and credit is given to these authors, as well as translators. It’s also a struggle to secure a publishing deal with commercial publishers for African languages, therefore writers resort to writing in English as it is easier to get their work published.

Stories of university students struggling academically, especially with reading and writing have been widely publicized. Especially first year students who are just out of high school, even those who did exceptionally well in matric. Language and literacy experts attribute this to a lack of proper foundation in acquiring skills in mother tongue education as well as lacking in the knowledge of the English language. To understand a second or third language, experts say, one needs to have a solid foundation, reading and writing in their home languages. Hence the emphasis in promoting the creation of literature in Setswana and other African languages as of utmost importance. Authors, translators and proof-readers need to be encouraged to continue their work in producing Setswana high quality literature.

Writers discussing their story lines in languages of the Northern Cape, including Setswana during the creative writing workshop at the 2016 Northern Cape Writers festival in Kimberley. The workshop was conducted by Lorato Trok

Puku encourages reviewing of children’s books written in African languages and this work is vital, especially with the points indicated above in the article.  Reviewing children’s books in South Africa and the entire African continent, unlike in the West and particularly in the United States of America, is not invested in by literacy promotion organizations and the publishing industry. Puku will be breaking ground.

Ms Debbie Reese is a prominent reviewer of children’s books in the United States. Her focus is on how Native Americans are represented in children’s books. She also conducts creative writing workshops designed to help participants gain awareness about issues such as stereotyping, appropriation of stories and cultures (http://www.ipl.org/div/natam/bin/browse.pl/A445).

Puku will be facilitating creative writing workshop and across the Northern Cape, a province with a large population of the indigenous San people, a people whose languages are at the risk of extinction and whose stories need to be told. Reviewing children’s books in South and Southern Africa will bring to life stories, identities and cultures of people whose stories are not mainstream through Puku’s writing workshops. The Pan South African Language Board (PanSALB) and Khoisan communities in the Northern Cape have resolved to introduce indigenous languages in schools in the province. They have agreed to have the languages added by 2019 (SABC News, October 2, 2016). They believe this will save many of the languages from extinction.

Kgosigadi Katrina le morwadiagwe Lena

Queen Katrina Esau, popularly known as ‘Geelmeid’, is one of the pioneers of preserving the San languages. Queen Katrina runs a school in her back yard teaching young children in her hometown of Upington songs and telling stories in her language, !Nxu.

Reviewing children’s books in Setswana encourages authors to write quality stories. Publishers will continue to invest in and hire qualified translators and proof-readers, knowing that their work will be critiqued and available on a public platform.Information gathered through this process can be used for research purposes about what material is available in the country as compared to other countries and what still needs to be done to promote early literacy in Setswana

Lorato with Ouma Katrina Esau, a pioneer of the! Nxu language and her team of advisors during her visit to Upington in 2016

Puku does not only review books, but uses reviewers who are experts in the field of early literacy, education and African languages. Reviewing children’s books creates a robust environment for all sectors of the book chain in the country. Analytics from the website can be used to reprint popular books and/or create a collection of popular children’s books in the country. Book sellers can use this list to make available these popular titles in the bookshops. The DBE and provincial education departments and public libraries can use this list when deciding on the selection of books for schools and public libraries. A domino effect is created through this process and it is the children of South/ Southern Africa who benefit the most, as it should be.

The National Library of South Africa collects every book published in the country each year, whether self-published or through trade publishing. Puku goes a step further through the review process, by aiming to review every children’s book published in the country for quality and cultural appropriateness. This ground-breaking work is what South Africa needs, a country still struggling to give African languages a space and voice in education, the arts, etc., more than 20 years after the dawn of democracy.

By reviewing Setswana books, Puku opens up a whole new world of looking at early literacy and sets a new publishing trend for publishing, both in this country and on the continent.