By Scott Walter
For post-independence, 1960’s Tanzania, prioritizing education was key to its transformation into a free and democratic country. This meant a reform of the colonial schooling system which saw the adoption of the Swahili language as the compulsory medium of instruction in primary schools, and a government take-over of the textbook publishing industry.
The country achieved Universal Primary Education (UPE) by 1973 but cracks were surfacing. The socialist economy was failing, education spending was soaring and the government role as publisher and provider of free text books essentially killed the book trade and private sector publishers. By the mid-80’s school fees were re-imposed, enrolment was down, books were disappearing and Tanzania’s much vaunted literacy rates were in retreat.
When I arrived in 1988 as CODE’s new East African Director, Tanzania was one of the poorest and most foreign aid-dependent countries in the world. Schools were functioning, but were in decline. Gross primary school enrolment had dropped from 100 to 71%. My job was to support programs that improved the quality of education with a particular focus on developing in children a “habit” of reading. This required that they encounter as wide a variety of books in KiSwahili as possible -- books that could entertain, arouse interest and excite curiosity. The problem was that Tanzania -- the epicentre of Swahili culture — didn’t publish children’s books, Swahili or otherwise.
Over time and with much consultation, a plan was crafted that would produce a sustainable supply of relevant, high-quality children’s books in the Swahili language. Publishing would be recognized as an entrepreneurial activity with the publisher as architect of the book, responsible for a process that starts with research and financing and ends with selling a finished product so the cycle can begin anew. From writers to booksellers, we would support every link in the ‘book-chain’ to create and sustain an entrepreneurial publishing sector. Thus was born Mradi wa Vitabu vya Watoto or the Children’s Book Project, not as a Publisher but as a mechanism to activate a book trade by subsidizing demand while supporting skill development.
Producing and distributing quality, locally produced books was a remarkable accomplishment of the CBP. But, to create a true reading culture in Tanzania, educators needed to help children get the most out of those books. In 1997, CBP with support from CODE and multiple government and education partners, embarked upon a National Reading Campaign. It focused on the professional development of teachers - training them in the teaching and acquisition of reading and writing skills and promoting an understanding and adoption of progressive, child-centred teaching methodologies. Reading Tanzania was first implemented in 75 of the 105 primary schools in the Kongwa District of the Dodoma Region in central Tanzania, beginning in 2012. A 2016 evaluation revealed that measures of reading fluency, reading with understanding, and writing coherently and correctly, scores of children in the project schools were far superior to those of children in control schools, even by factors of two or three.
What CBP has long understood is that the supply of suitable learning materials is as vital to educational quality as are qualified teachers and there is no substitute for authentic, relevant book development and production by local publishers who know the requirements of their educational and cultural base. This formula of great books, put in the hands of trained educators, and buttressed by effective local partners, is the core of CODE’s award-winning development model, the locally branded, comprehensive readership approach called “Reading CODE”.
The success of the Tanzanian-owned and diversely funded CBP can be attributed to highly capable and passionate Executive Directors. CBP leaders have come from various backgrounds - each in their own way cultivating the reading landscape in Tanzania. A landscape that will continue to expand and enrich because of CBP’s ability to adapt with the times and technology by offering not only culturally relevant books but accessible books — including those in braille and digitized e-titles — and opportunities for young Tanzanians to tell- and share-their own stories. CODE is proud to be celebrating this milestone with CBP and looks forward to many more years of collaboration.
Scott Walter has been the Executive Director at CODE since 2007.