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Brandeis professor campaigns to increase literacy in Lesotho

By Stephan Sukmaran

Section: Arts

October 12, 2007

If I were asked to name my favorite childhood book, I would be able to do so without sparing a seconds thought. As my five-year-old self sat in my room reading , I would never have guessed that there were people who did not have access to this opportunity. As I became older I found that this is the unfortunate reality in the small African nation of Lesotho.

Lesotho, the self-proclaimed mountain kingdom, is located within the Republic of South Africa. The people are known as Basotho (sing. Masotho) and they speak Sesotho. English is also widely spoken, particularly in urban areas. Lesotho is unfortunately severely afflicted with HIV/AIDS, with the third highest HIV/AIDS rate in the world.

In spite of this sobering information, this small country, which is roughly less than half the size of West Virgina, boasts an extremely high literacy rate, especially amongst women. This statistic is made all the more shocking when you account for the fact that there are no bookstores in Lesotho. For most, the only book to be found within their household is the Bible.

It is easy to see how the children of Lesotho are missing out from the joys, memories and benefits to be had from reading. However, thanks to the efforts of one professor, the winds of change have taken into effect in the mountain kingdom.

During her presentation at The Heller School for Social Policy and Management on Tuesday evening, Jane A. Hale, Associate Professor of French and Comparative Literature here at Brandeis and recipient of three Fulbright grants, spoke of her recent literacy work in Lesotho. Hales past work included the inauguration of a pilot international site for the Reach Out and Read literacy program in the capital city, Maseru, last fall.

Reach Out and Read (ROR) is a nationwide program devised to promote literacy skills as a standard in primary care settings. Hale, who instructs the University Seminar, Literacy and Development, has worked with the local site at the Joseph Smith Community Health Center in Waltham. Her students actively volunteered in the program as part of the Community-Engaged Learning portion of the course.

After inaugurating the site in Maseru, Hale established Family Literacy Lesotho, a national foundation. The primary aim of its inception was to promote the development of childrens picture books involving life in Lesotho and written in Sesotho. These books would ideally be available to all Basotho children.

Before Hales initiatives, literary works in Lesotho were mostly written in English with Western perspectives. The few books written in Sesotho were not meant for children. How could Basotho children be expected to read culturally inappropriate materials?

Last spring, Family Literacy Lesotho created a national story-writing contest from which 288 winners were selected. A celebration for the winning entrants was held on July 26th, where $6400 in prizes was awarded. The age bracket for entrants was indicative of the popularity of Hales program, as they ranged from a three-year-old child to an eighty-seven-year-old woman.

In an interesting turn of events, local artists in attendance took it upon themselves to create the Children Art Organization of Lesotho. It was to serve as a resource for future story art as well as to provide free art lessons to all who were interested. Recent correspondence has informed Hale that the organization is well on its way. A Family Art and Reading Center was also created to serve as a resource center for artists, their supplies, and training.

Since its inception, Family Literacy Lesotho has received well over 5,500 books as of August 2007. Large corporations such as Scholastic, Inc., donated some books, but Hale states that most donations came from individual support. Future plans of Hales organization include working with Lesothos oldest printer, the Morija Sesotho Book Depot. Queen Masenate Seeiso, herself, recently signed on as a patron of the prospering project.

Hale quoted an old proverb in her presentation: If you want to keep a secret from a Masothowrite it in a book. Due to the continuing impact of Hales work in the Kingdom of Lesotho this troubling proverb will eventually be outdated.

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