Change the world


My personal experience of having worked with young adults in higher education for more than 30 years is that students who grew up in adverse social economic circumstances but who had the benefit of being exposed to reading from an early age, generally excelled despite their circumstances.

An emphasis on literacy and the need to read requires specific focus at this time, when the majority of our schools in working class and rural areas are still not providing quality education. The pandemic has not helped.

Compounding this is the reality that most pupils are unable to benefit from eLearning digital platforms, as do well-resourced schools.

Lack of access to devices, poor connectivity and data costs, as well as teaching capacity needs to be addressed, as does literacy in the school and home.

Literacy in all our African languages and in English as the main language of instruction and commerce is central to educational success,

This is why the Book Bag Project, launched in the last week of June 2021, is so important.

A partnership between Nelson Mandela University and the Utopia Foundation is giving books to 10,000 children, aged six to twelve years, at 13 primary schools in Nelson Mandela Bay and three in the Eastern Cape village of Cala.

Each child receives two beautiful books, all with a panAfrican theme, in a specially designed calico bag. There are eight different books in total, which allows the children to exchange books and read them all.

Delivering the books to all the schools was a significant logistical undertaking and the handover ceremonies were virtual.

The teachers said the joy in the children’s eyes on receiving their gift in class, and finding out what was in the bag, was unforgettable.

The Book Bag Project came about when Paul Sutherland, founder and chair of the Utopia Foundation and author of the books, said he would like to sponsor the initiative.

The benefit of reading to and with young children to develop strong literacy skills, has been widely researched.

In addition to its entertainment value, reading promotes increased concentration and critical thinking skills, improved memory and boosts brain power, imagination and creativity, and ultimately enhances pupils’ success at school.

All eight books in the Book Bag Project are wonderful, exciting reads and convey strong, important messages.

One of the books, Amani the Boda-Boda Rider, features a girl called Amani who rides a motorbike and who believes girls can be anything they want to be.

According to Sutherland, each book is designed to “foster character, appreciation of differences and resilience, and to help inspire a child’s emotional, co-operative and relationship intelligences”.

He was attracted to our university for two reasons: the wisdom of our namesake Nelson Mandela, and our Faculty of Education’s inclusion of the educational philosophy of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire in the curriculum.

It is all about reimagining our schools as beacons of hope where the development of each child’s imagination, mathematical ability, language and literacy, self-concept and selfconfidence positively influences the rest of their lives.

Paul contacted me in my role as chair of the Mandela University’s Convergence Fund steering committee.

Included in the book bag, created by NMU design students, are three inserts in English and isiXhosa.

The first insert, ‘My Superhero Powers Resilience Chart’ provides a list of healthy exercises children can practice when they experience negative emotions.

The second is a letter to parents, teachers and caregivers about the value of reading.

The third is a letter the children can personalise and give to their parents or caregiver, which list various practical ways in which they can interact with, support, and love their children.

The books are all in English to encourage literacy in English but hopefully down the line will be translated into African languages.

The schools participating in the Book Bag Project are part of a network that partners with Mandela University’s Centre for the Community School (CCS) in the Faculty of Education.

The CCS is engaged in improving the quality of education in community schools in the Bay and throughout the Eastern Cape, in partnership with the Manyano network of community schools and the Ikamvelihle Development Trust (iKDT) in Cala.

Dr Bruce Damons, who helped grow the CCS, and was part of the Book Bag Project launch, explains that community schools are part of their community and vice versa.

One of several examples he offers is Charles Duna Primary in New Brighton. It is one of the Manyano schools with which the CCS partners, and is part of the Book Bag Project.

It has 1,063 pupils from Grade R to Grade 7, courageously led by principal Nombulelo Sume since 1998.

Many of the pupils come from informal settlements where their lives are hard; unemployment is rife, as are gangs, violence, single parent homes, orphans and HIV/Aids.

Despite this, over the past 15 years they have turned the school into a place of optimism, with 27 parent volunteers on site, a well-managed library and reading clubs, science labs and a computer lab, all from funding they raised.

In about six months we will look at the medium-term effect the books had on the children both at school and at home.

This article appeared in The Herald (South Africa) on 28 July 2021 writen by Dr Ossie Franks, chair of Nelson Mandela university's Convergence Fund Steering Committee and former Dean of Engineering.

Contact information
Dr Oswald Franks
Executive Dean: Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment & Information Technology
Tel: 27 41 504 3283