Sierra Leone: Reading yourself—and the other

Freedom of speech is also about being given access to literature itself. “Alphabetization” is not just about cracking the reading code—it also about getting a hand to reach the higher branches in the tree of language and literature. In Sierra Leone, PEN has taken this challenge very seriously. The result of the work show us something that we need to be reminded of—access to literature is to be given a gateway to the world and a door into your own self. 

October 24 2013 Text: Mohamed Sheriff

To many around the world freedom of expression is simply what the term suggests—freedom or the right to say whatever one wishes to say in any medium to whomever without any hindrance, persecution or victimization from any quarter subject to limitations only by universally accepted restrictions as with racist and anti-Semitic remarks, libel, slander, obscenity and religious or other hate speeches. But in this digital age where the printed/written word as a medium of expression plays such a vital role in local, national, regional and global intercourse is yet taken for granted by many. For those whose capacity to express themselves is limited by their inability to use this mode because they can’t read and write or do so well, the right to freedom of expression becomes inextricably linked to the right to education, quality education—a commodity still in short supply in many developing countries, including ours, Sierra Leone. This problem is all the more critical giving the fact that reading for pleasure and enlightenment develops the communication skills and critical thinking capacity of children and therefore enhances their ability to analyze situations and circumstances in their environment and express their views more effectively.

The issue of empowering children through quality education is among the factors that informed the establishment of the School Club Project by PEN Sierra Leone Centre in 2005. The Centre itself was established in 2003 to promote literature and freedom of expression.In general, the PEN Sierra Leone Centre works towards achieving all of the objectives of the parent body. But as has been said in the opening paragraph, the right to freedom of speech in Sierra Leone is tied in many ways to the right to quality education. Without good education, freedom of speech will not be fully realized.

When PEN Sierra Leone Centre was established in 2003 the country was just one year out of an eleven-year civil war which disrupted schooling so often that it brought education to a halt in many parts of the country, affecting a whole generation of schoolchildren. Among the numerous casualties of this disruption is the culture of reading for pleasure and enlightenment. Children came out of the war no longer interested in reading. They preferred to listen to music, watch African movies or European and English Premier league football matches. Their lack of interest in reading was affecting their communication skills and as a result their overall performance. With these concerns in mind, the PEN School Club Project was established.

The overall goal of the program is to promote literature among young people across the country by generating more interest in reading and writing for pleasure and enlightenment. We visit schools and talk to the authorities about establishing reading and writing clubs and assess their enthusiasm towards the project before determining which schools we will establish the clubs in. Next we identify and select a teacher facilitator in each school who will recruit members into the clubs. After that we meet with the members and conduct an orientation workshop which entails a talk about the importance of reading and writing, a session on how to manage their reading and writing club, elect officials and whatever else we think will be useful to them. And finally we give them a notice board where they can post their short stories and poems, some writing materials and books. In the end we leave them in the care of the teacher facilitator and the school authorities. On a regular basis we monitor their activities and whenever we have a literary program or any other cultural activity we invite them to participate. We have today fifty school clubs across the country.

One component of the project was to produce locally written and illustrated children’s books for use in our schools. It entailed the running of a series of workshops over a two-year period (2010-2012) to train writers and illustrators for the production of children’s books. Each year, two training workshops were delivered by International trainers while local trainers facilitated smaller knowledge exchange focused workshops. Other workshops were held to review and select the best eight manuscripts. The manuscripts were then shared among children storybook editors in Canada, the USA and Sierra Leone to produce final drafts, which we distributed to selected schools, including our school clubs and other educational institutions.

Another component of the project was to procure books from international book donors and distribute them to some selected schools in the country. The project was able to secure 120,000 copies of reading books from the International Book Bank and other sources and distribute them to these schools. “Mini libraries” were built in all the target schools and the teachers were trained to teach reading so the books would be well utilized by the pupils.

In 2010 the Commonwealth Foundation and PEN International commissioned a study to evaluate the impact of culture on development using the Sierra Leone PEN School Club program as a case study. The purpose of this evaluation was to measure the impact the program had, to assess the theory of change and provide a strong evidence base for these changes. Among other things the study conducted by an independent researcher revealed (through testimonies from a cross section of present and past school club members, facilitators and authorities) that the program had a positive impact on the pupils by helping to improve on their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills—and above all their self-confidence. The following is an excerpt from the report describing the impact and challenges of the project:

“In all the schools visited it was reported that participants in the PEN clubs were among those who did well in their internal school examinations.
Also participants were among those who excelled in public examinations such as the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) and the West Africa School Certificate Examination (WASCE).
Reading became interesting and participants could see the relationship between this and improvement in schoolwork.
Participants reported an improvement in their speaking and writing skills.
All participants spoken to report a change from shyness to a high level of confidence marked by boldness to speak. Presentation skills were developed as the club members were grouped and assigned to prepare presentations after which, they had to answer questions from the floor to develop listening skills and improve levels of concentration/attention.
Leadership potential and skills were developed as members elected executive committees that were accountable to them. They participated actively in club meetings. They even resolved conflicts among members.”

PEN Sierra Leone will continue to tackle these challenges and expand the school club program to empower more children with better education and increase their capacity to enjoy freedom of expression.