By James Tasamba
KIGALI, Rwanda (AA) - Literacy rates in African countries are estimated at roughly 70%, according to African Union data released Thursday, lagging behind world averages of about 90%.
Seeking to spread cultural tendencies to read, the bloc convened a three-day continental meeting in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa last May. The meeting was themed, Promoting a Culture of Reading in Africa.
Underlining the importance of accessibility of reading materials, former Rwandan Education Minister Silas Lwakabamba told Anadolu Agency that governments, academia, civil society and the private sector must to find innovative ways to promote a reading culture.
"When you go to newspaper vendors in towns you find a crowd around them. You can tell that people really want to read but they have to read a newspaper without buying. Either they read from the stand itself or they read from friends," he told Anadolu Agency on Thursday, highlighting that people could not afford books or newspapers.
"You find you are reading a newspaper and your friend picks out half of the pages, another takes other pages. It is a question of affordability or accessibility," added Lwakabamba, who is a member of the Atlantis Group of former Education Ministers around the world.
"Education starts and ends with reading. Children are taught at a young age that reading was one of the four basic skills they need," he said.
Lwakabamba lamented the lack of public libraries in Africa, urging the provision of affordable reading materials in schools.
"If you are a parent and you want your children to read you have to buy material for them," he said, arguing that along with public libraries, electronic resources should also be provided.
Mesfin Tessema, the director of the African Union's Department of Strategy and Policy Planning, said despite being a critical issue, the development of reading culture in Africa was not taken seriously enough.
A lack of appropriate legislation, funding and qualified professionals across the continent are among the challenges African countries face in establishing public libraries, with a single library per 500,000 people.
Such low distributions of libraries is largely responsible for weak reading culture in some African countries, Tessema said, underlining that nations development could not be achieved without knowledge and education.
The Rwandan government observed National Literacy Month in September, dedicated to encouraging households, communities and schools to engage in activities that promote reading and writing.
According to Rwanda’s Minister of State for Education Isaac Munyakazi, everyone has a role to play in developing reading and writing culture, which he said could only be attained with everyone's participation.
He called on parents to be exemplary at home by reading books themselves, as well as to their children who could not yet read and buy storybooks for those in school.
Promoting reading and writing is an important step in promoting national culture, according to experts.
Rwanda recently launched textbooks for the education of the country's local language, Kinyarwanda, for schoolchildren to be used in all government-backed schools across the country.
Rwanda has an adult literacy rate of about 70.8%, according to UNESCO.
Joan Murungi, the head of the curriculum department at the Rwanda Education Board, said efforts to digitize books continued in the country, with hopes of increasing digital libraries in schools.
The government bought copyrights of all books published in the education sector to be uploaded to a national digital platform within the two next years, she said.
"Education equals development. In countries which have developed, people are much more educated. It makes a lot of difference if you educate more people. We have to find innovative ways of doing these things," said Lwakabamba.