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Meet the NGO working to create a world in which everyone is a reader. This article appears in SUITCASE Volume 18: The Rhythm Issue.
In the last issue of SUITCASE Magazine we visited Naples. It was a trip inspired by the Neapolitan novels, a four-book series that has captured the imaginations of readers for its intricate depiction of female friendship. Penned by an author using the pseudonym Elena Ferrante, the saga charts the lives of two women named Elena and Lila. As young girls the friends devour entire libraries – stories offer the pair an escape from the insular and impoverished neighbourhood in which they grow up. In adolescence and adulthood Elena continues her education at high school, eventually going on to study at university, while Lila marries young and remains trapped in a cycle of poverty and abuse.
If there’s one message to be taken from the Neapolitan novels it’s that literacy is transformative and books have the power to open up the world. According to a number of international studies, literacy is the most accurate predictor of an individual’s earning power, and has the ability to decrease inequality. Yet one in four young people in developing nations are unable to read a single sentence, and millions more have limited access to books.
One NGO is on a mission to create a world in which everyone is a reader. Founded by Colin McElwee and David Risher, a former executive of Amazon and Microsoft, Worldreader is introducing digital books to schools and libraries across the globe. While efforts to expand access to books in their traditional format can be costly (think of the logistics of shipping boxes of books to remote areas by land, air and sea) a child with a Kindle can hold a portable library in their hands. Since the charity’s inception in 2010, Worldreader has shipped more than 22,000 Kindles and delivered nearly 4million e-books to countries across Africa. Beyond the e-reader programme the charity has developed an app that allows anyone, anywhere in the world, access to a digital library from a java-enabled phone or a tablet.
During a recent trip to Ghana for this issue, we witnessed the work of Worldreader first-hand. Located on the outskirts of Accra, in the Muslim-majority neighbourhood of Nima, Achievers Ghana is a reading group supported by Worldreader’s programme that aims to equip girls in slum communities with the necessary skills to reach their potential. The story of the organisation begins with a child called Amina, who was betrothed to an older man by her uncle when she only 12 years old. Amina’s schoolteachers alerted the authorities and intervened, helping her to escape the marriage and continue her studies. Amina became an advocate for the education of girls, and co-founded Achievers with one of her teachers called Amadu Zulkarnain Mohammed.
Today the club has 250 members aged between 10 and 18, who come after school to read for up to three hours from Kindles. The stories address issues including child marriage and education, speaking directly to the girls’ own experiences. Worldreader works with local publishers and actively curates books by African authors for their library, as it has been proven that the more culturally relevant a student’s first reads are, the more likely she is to continue reading throughout her adult life.
In addition to cultivating lifelong reading habits, Achievers is dedicated to instilling girls with confidence, which is developed through learning to present and perform to a group. During our visit the girls set up a makeshift stage and took it in turns to recite from memory some of their favourite stories and poems.
The girls also displayed a remarkable enthusiasm for learning. A far cry from the “too cool for school” attitude that coursed through much of my own experience of education, students here approach books with an energy that suggests that they are aware of their studies as a lifeline. These girls have aspirations that far exceed the limitations of their circumstances, with dreams of becoming pilots, doctors and journalists.
The majority of students come from single-parent families and child marriage can be seen as a way to break out of a life below the poverty line. Achievers, supported by Worldreader, is on a mission to prove that through education young girls can work towards finding stable employment, reaching their earning potential and becoming more actively engaged in their country’s social, political and cultural life. According to a study conducted by Unicef, if all girls had secondary education in sub-Saharan Africa and South and West Asia then child marriage would fall by 64 per cent.
By boosting confidence and ambition through literacy, Achievers is giving girls in slum communities in Ghana every opportunity to end the cycle of poverty and attain a better quality of life. The group is just one of the 56 schools aided by Worldreader across the country, and one of 512 schools and libraries across the globe. A digital reading revolution is quietly taking place, one Kindle at a time.
For more information visit worldreader.org
£80 enables 20 families to read on mobile phones through the Worldreader open library
£400 enables a project manager of a Worldreader school programme to travel and attend the Worldreader Reading summit in Accra or Nairobi
£12,000 provides a digital classroom library for a school or library in Africa
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