Happy Readers in Zimbabwe
By Emma O Beirne
“Are you giving my son reading medicine? What are you doing here?! Now he wants to read!!”
We are Happy Readers, based in Zimbabwe, and we teach children to read! Our books are a specifically structured series of learn-to-read books, designed to teach children in Africa how to read with English as a second language. The quote above shows the enthusiasm that children and parents have for the program.
Parents in Africa know that if their children can read, they can learn; if they learn, they can pass exams; if they pass exams, they have a better chance at escaping the poverty trap.
We launched Happy Readers because we saw the great gulf between our own children and so many others. In Zimbabwe, we see children of all ages begging on the roadsides or in the shopping centers, asking for money for school fees or any kind of help with their education. The free education promised to Zimbabweans has not reached all children.
We talked to communities, to people on the streets, to children, and to teachers. We determined that the problem stemmed from a lack of funding for government schools, which in turn had been exacerbated by the political situation in Zimbabwe that led to many teachers, who were able to transfer skills, leaving the country. During turbulent years when it seemed that Zimbabwe would tear itself apart, angry factions would vent their rage by destroying communities. Many schools were destroyed, there weren’t enough teachers, and existing schools didn’t have resources after 20 years of no funding. Although some schools were supported by aid programs, they received materials designed for European or American children and the teachers often had no idea how to use them.
We found a solution in a series of books written in the 1980s by my mother-in-law, Florence Ford. Florence put over 40 years of Zimbabwean teaching experience and literacy science into her books. She made sure that children and teachers alike would enjoy using them. With wild animals as characters, bright and bold colors, and funny stories, they capture children’s imagination. The books tap into the rich African heritage of love for the land, and respect for its flora and fauna.
Our children loved their grandmother’s books and took them to school to share them with their teacher and friends. The teacher called me and wanted to know more about them, praising them as brilliant reading books. I determined then and there to find out how to get them into every child’s hands!
My husband Conor revamped the books and I put my marketing and sales skills to good use! We added Parents and Teachers notes in vernacular languages, so that anyone who could already read could use them. We took a deep breath and threw everything we had at a print run. Then we started banging on doors and talking to everyone we could about the need for quality and Africa appropriate literacy materials in Zimbabwe. Word spread, and slowly, slowly, orders began to trickle in.
We started with tiny projects in orphanages and sponsored schools in urban areas. Then, the churches heard about our success and came to us for literacy solutions in their schools. Word spread that Happy Readers worked and the children and teachers loved the program. Our detailed worksheets demonstrate individual children’s progress through the reading scheme, which allows us to extrapolate data-based literacy levels. Now nearly every private school in Zimbabwe uses Happy Readers within their literacy programs, as well as over 1,000 government schools – 20% of the total primary schools.
As Happy Readers teach children to read, they are also delivering lessons about the environment, our relationships with wildlife, and other social messages. As we say, a child who can learn to read, can read to learn. We decided to incorporate real-life issues in our stories, helping children and parents to be informed and aware. For example, Ronnie Rhino is an orphan whose parents were poached and Whynot the Wild Dog calls her pack to help catch the poachers. Wild Dog packs have an alpha female as leader, which is a great role model for young girls.
We’ve been developing storylines to encompass relevant themes in Africa today—gender-specific issues (including child trafficking, gender-based violence, early childhood marriage), inclusivity, self-reliance and rebuilding new lives after displacement, conservation and anti-poaching, landmine awareness and mine risk education, and climate-smart agricultural practices.
An enthusiastic teacher tells us:
“The kids love taking the books home for the weekend and, as these books read like novels, sitting next to their parents while they both read! It’s great to finally have material that is African, something the kids can relate to, stories with African characters doing things they understand.”
Approximately, 120,000 children have access to Happy Readers books every year in Grades 1 and 2. Feedback from school heads and teachers indicates that a further 80,000 children in the upper grades are also benefiting from Happy Readers, which are used as remedial readers in those grades. And we know that some parents are being taught to read by their own children using the books! We’ve also trained and certified over 2,500 teachers. Conor goes out to the rural areas and trains the teachers on site, making sure that they are able to keep the program running year after year. He is known by children and teachers as Mr. Happy Readers wherever he goes!
We think Happy Readers is making a significant impact. In the 9 years we have been operating, our program has been implemented in more than a thousand schools in Zimbabwe, and other regional countries will be coming online soon. We have measurable outcomes, start-finish points, and data analysis reports. In a country that is struggling with literacy levels of around 10-20%, Happy Readers is achieving levels between 70-90%! Our business model was based on a low profit/high-volume turnover, as we wanted the books to be affordable and accessible. To this day, 9 years in, we have not had one price increase.
Final Note: At the grand age of 88 years, Florence visited her grandchildren here in Zimbabwe, and had the joy of listening to them read her books to her every night for their school homework!
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