Elinor Sisulu and Puku’s combat against the "cognitive catastrophe" of illiteracy

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Elinor Sisulu, executive director of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation (Photo: Puku)

Elinor Sisulu, award-winning writer and human rights activist, recently received the 2021 UNESCO King Sejong International Literacy Prize on behalf of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, of which she is the executive director. The foundation, based in Gauteng, was recognised for its work on “Using digital technologies to promote children’s literature in South Africa’s indigenous languages”.

Puku is among six 2021 UNESCO laureates recognised for their outstanding literacy programmes. The foundation received a medal, a diploma and a cash prize of $20 000. UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay noted that all the winners have literally changed the lives of thousands of children, young people, women and marginalised adults.

Puku Children’s Literature Foundation is a nongovernmental organisation with the objective of promoting reading and book development to help all children, especially those living in the most economically deprived areas, so that they may have access to books in all South African languages. Puku aims to ensure that all children have access to quality, culturally relevant literature in the languages they understand.

Elinor Sisulu told Melt Myburgh about the activities of Puku since its inception more than a decade ago, how it thrived despite many challenges, its ground-breaking work in publishing the first-ever book in the N/uu language, and the continued struggle against the ravages caused by illiteracy.


Children’s literature and the commitment to human rights

“Children’s literature is a foundation for building empathy and understanding.” – Elinor Sisulu (Photo: Puku)

I was always interested in children’s literature, and my own experience convinces me that the literature we read as children plays a significant role in developing our identity.

When I was about ten years old, I read a book by Pearl S Buck. I cannot remember the title of the book, but I vividly remember the main character, a girl of my age – her name may have been Yukiko – who is separated from her parents during a war. Fleeing from the fighting, she comes across a little boy called Tuku. The two become inseparable as they struggle to survive the ravages of war.

That book had a profound effect on me. I think it is the main reason I developed a hatred and fear of war and a commitment to human rights. I believe that children’s literature can sow the seeds of consciousness in children about the challenges that they will confront in adulthood. Children’s literature is a foundation for building empathy and understanding.

Children’s books by African authors

Kerline Astre and Helze Kunju presenting Gcina Mhlophe with an Puku award. (Photo: Puku)

I grew up on a steady diet of children’s books from England and North America. I was already an adult when I first read a children’s book by an African writer.

When I had my own children, my concern about the dearth of books for African children intensified. I was deeply influenced by an article by the great Zimbabwean writer Chenjerai Hove, entitled, “The earth turns on a foreign axis”, in which he argued that education in Africa has been an alienating experience, because from the time an African child enters the classroom, he finds that his world is not worth learning about:

Nothing about my own parents’ farming routines, the birds of my own sky, the smell of my own land, the cries of the children as mothers sang African lullabies to them, and the folk tales which sent ghosts reeling in our imagination. Nothing about the stories of witches and medicine men and women as they fought to control both the gods and the human beings. All became “superstition” as we succumbed to the new religion, never to return again or maybe to remain in some grey area of confusion.

Elinor’s The day Gogo went to vote

My desire to write contemporary stories for African children led me to write a children’s story in 1994, The day Gogo went to vote, which was published in the US by Little, Brown and Co, and in South Africa by Tafelberg.

I was impressed at how the book was received in the US. I had written the book for South African children, yet it was extensively reviewed and used by education departments across America. This got me interested in the children’s literature ecosystem and the burgeoning multicultural literature in that country, and I felt that the same could be done in South Africa.

The rise of Puku

I became involved with the Centre for the Book, where I served on the Book Development Council (BDF). When the partnership with the Centre for the Book ended in 2008, Colleen Higgs – who was, at the time, working for the Centre for the Book – and I successfully proposed that we get part of the BDF funds to start a children’s literature website. This provided the seed funding for the puku.co.za website that went live in 2009 and the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation that was registered in 2010.

BDF board members Annari van der Merwe, Joan de Beer, Eric Kuhl and Brian Wafawarova steered Colleen and me through the early stages of setting up the organisation.

The first iteration of the Puku website was built by literary activist Ben Williams, with Noni Mashologu as the main editor, and Bontle Senne, then a student at UCT, as our first intern. Bontle later became the first full-time director of Puku and is now a board member.

The Puku team

Elinor is also the author of a biography about her husband’s parents, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In our lifetime and A different kind of Holocaust: A personal reflection on HIV/AIDS. (Photo: Puku)

Puku has always had a small core team, supported by passionate and committed volunteers who are sometimes independent contractors. These volunteers have continued the work with or without funds. We are a small organisation with big dreams, and this is the only way we have managed to survive and achieve what we have so far.

This award is therefore not ours alone. We must take this opportunity to acknowledge and thank our partners, who played a crucial role in the implementation of the project.

In my UNESCO acceptance speech, I acknowledged the following partners: PanSALB (the Pan South African Language Board); the University of South Africa (UNISA); the University of the Western Cape (UWC); Sol Plaatje University (SPU); the National Library of South Africa (NLSA); the Indigenous Languages Initiative for Advancement (ILIFA Lethu); the International Board for Books for Young People, South Africa (IBBY SA); and Biblionef South Africa.

I also acknowledged Ouma Katrina Esau and her family.

Artists who helped to make a difference

I did not mention the amazing artists who contributed their artworks to Puku at crucial moments. Stanley Grootboom illustrated the N/uu book pro bono and donated an artwork to Puku.

Another artist who has walked a long journey with Puku is mixed-media artist, writer and philanthropist Khehla Chepape Makgatho. His ongoing support has included the donation of an artwork that was bought by a private collector and the proceeds given to Puku. This was a valuable contribution at a very low point in Puku’s finances.

Space does not allow for acknowledgement of all those who have supported Puku over the years. This will be done on Puku’s digital platforms over the next few months.

The COVID-19 pandemic and Puku

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced increased uptake in virtual communication, making it easier and cheaper to organise meetings and consultations that reach huge audiences with little lead time and financial investment. Puku leveraged this opportunity by organising the first-ever webinar series in indigenous languages.

We have used the curriculum of the writing and reviewing workshops that Puku has held over the years to develop an online course. Puku’s online book reviewing course includes light animation, traditional music and a comprehensive curriculum targeting individuals new to book reviewing. It is available on Puku’s YouTube channel, and we aim to make it available in downloadable, smaller-size format through other Puku online platforms.

Ouma Katrina Esau and the first-ever book in the N/uu language

Puku enabled the publication of Katrina Esau’s book, the first-ever in the N/uu language. (Photo: Puku)

Puku spearheaded the publication of the first-ever book in the N/uu language, a monumental contribution to the struggle of Katrina Esau to ensure the survival of her language.

We also made substantive progress in putting together a catalogue of Xhosa books, the first in a series of catalogues of indigenous language books for early childhood.

Puku uses the usual digital platforms – its website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube. We have barely tapped the potential of these platforms, and with increased investment, there is much more that we could do.

Puku has, since its inception, always been cognisant of the need to bridge the digital divide and to use digital technologies to develop a more organised system of reviewing and selecting books. The pandemic just highlighted the urgency of digital connectivity to enable remote learning.

The battle against illiteracy in South Africa

It is widely acknowledged that South Africa suffers a reading crisis characterised by low literacy levels among mainly black learners in public schools (PIRLS, 2016). Results released by STATS SA (28 May 2019) detail that South African children do not have the requisite emotional and academic support at home that is necessary for reading and schooling success. Forty-six percent of parents and caregivers have never read to or with the children in their care.

By the time these learners enter high school, their literacy levels are not adequate to enable them to use either their English or their indigenous languages as Languages of Learning and Teaching (LOLTs). Also, the national education policy of additive multilingualism from grade one is not likely to succeed without intervention in the reading skills of students.

South Africa was placed last out of 50 countries in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) released in November 2017. It is not surprising that South Africa’s reading crisis has been described as a “cognitive catastrophe”.

Inadequate reading skills and the high dropout rate

If nine-year-olds are struggling to read and engage with what is being taught in the classroom, it is not surprising that 50% of South Africa’s learners drop out of school without any formal qualification. According to a press statement published by Equal Education – a movement of learners, parents, teachers and community members working for quality and equality in South African education – between 2010 and 2015 only half of the learners who began school in grade two reached matric.

Inadequate reading skills rank high among the factors that contribute to this high dropout rate. Low levels of achievement among black learners breed exclusion, poverty and inequality, thus inevitably impairing the economic development and stability of the country. Without substantial investment in developing a culture of reading among our children, literacy rates will remain unacceptably low, with far-reaching consequences for economic growth, poverty reduction and quality of life for most South Africans.

How can citizens help?

Waterlines, a Puku storytelling project presented in 2015 (Photo: Puku)

There are many ways that citizens can help fight illiteracy, from ensuring the literacy of one child to contributing to any one of the organisations in the literacy and literature ecosystem that are doing amazing work. Simply buying and reviewing South African children’s books is a significant contribution.

With all the sophisticated research and centuries of the world’s humans reading, two things remain ultra-important for children: access to reading materials, so they can practise and enjoy reading; and the enthusiasm about books that their grown-ups exhibit.

Often underappreciated is the importance of storytelling as both a precursor and companion to reading books or being read to. No one needs a cent to start telling stories and having their child tell them stories.

The question about what every citizen can do in the battle against illiteracy is a great one that we will address at length on the Puku website in the coming months.

A message for aspiring children’s book authors

Our education expert, Nomvuyo Mzamane, says:

  • There is no writer who does not read. If you have not read dozens of children’s books for the age group or theme you are interested in, your goals will be significantly more difficult to attain.
  • Know children and respect them. It’s as simple as that.

My take is that writing for children is a craft. To master the craft, it is necessary to develop the ability to say much in as few words as possible. This requires an investment of time, energy and practice.

A message to our teachers

Author Sindiwe Magona (Photo: Puku)

First and foremost, teachers themselves must read and be enthusiastic about reading. In Sindiwe Magona’s words: “You cannot infect someone with a disease that you do not have. Teachers cannot instil the love for reading in children if they do not love reading themselves.”

Embrace a paradigm shift: it is called reading and not reading in English. Every language matters; any language is good enough. The best readers, the most challenging creative and critical thinking, the largest wins for communication skills, are across and between languages.

Be tenacious about influencing reading time at home. Teachers know they have power even in their students’ homes, so let them use it for good. For example, suggest daily 10-minute read-alouds (or story times) at home, and every night the parent signs that they heard the book/story. Just that is enough. If the parent is not available, then an older sibling or a trusted neighbour could help.

Daily reading should be a religion.

Recognition for Puku

Puku has received recognition for its work in the past through two Business and Arts South Africa (BASA) Awards in 2015 and 2018. Puku was also one of seven winners of the Africa Publishing Innovation Fund Award in 2019, but the UNESCO King Sejong Literacy Prize is the most prestigious award that we have received so far. This is a huge boost to the morale of our team, especially since we have gone through a tough couple of years.

Puku almost closed down in 2019 due to funding difficulties, and it was only the contributions of board members and some dedicated supporters that enabled us to survive. This award is a vindication of those efforts.

The international recognition also underlines the importance of investment in language, literacy and literature. We are grateful to the Presidential Employment Stimulus Programme for the grant that enabled us to do much of the work that contributed to Puku winning this award.


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  • Andries van der Walt

    This makes a mockery of the Dept of Basic Education's language policy as well as that of Nzimande. No wonder the dropout rate at university level is
    also so high.

    This has been identified as far back as 1980 when the new Labour Relations Act was introduced.

    With such a dropout rate we will have more and more unemployable people and continued high unemployment.

    The work they do also runs counter to the arguments for the implementation of multilingual education.

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