Reaching Rural Readers

First published in the Daily Dispatch, 16 January 2017

Six kilometres from the sea and 15 kilometers inland from the small coastal town of Hibberdene in KwaZulu-Natal, is a rural primary school called Esibanini. Mrs Bhengu is the principal. She became a teacher like her mother, and her mother before her. But, despite its remoteness, things are changing in her town: the houses now have electricity and some even use stand pipes to supply them with water. And Mrs Bhengu is making changes too.

In charge of 910 children from Grade R to 4, the Esibanini Primary School is, for most of the children who attend it, the first and only place where they are exposed to printed materials, books, and are purposefully engaged. Without resources, or their parents, many of the pupils live with their unemployed and illiterate grandparents and are at risk of being caught up in the vicious cycle of the poverty that surrounds them.

One could say that a great weight rests on Mrs Bhengu’s shoulders, but she is positive and she has plan. She knows the power of stories and has worked hard to ensure that Esibanini has a library. Housed in a shipping container and run by a committee, it’s not yet fully functional, but is still a valuable resource for the school and its learners.  And another great wave of changing is coming for the school: Mrs Bhengu’s teachers and pupils are about to be switched on to the joy and magic of books and stories when they are brought to life in ways that feel good for children and caregivers.

Signed up by Mrs Bhengu, Esibanini is one of 720 rural primary schools in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal provinces that will be participating in Nal’ibali’s new schools’ initiative titled: ‘Story Powered Schools: A South African Reading Revolution’. Launching with the new school year, Story Powered Schools is a pilot project made possible by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and endorsed by the Department of Basic Education. And Nal’ibali – the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, will be using its proven approach to multilingual literacy development to ignite the minds and imaginations of children who attend them by placing stories at the heart of their classrooms and schools.

When children experience books and stories in ways that feel good to them, they want to have the experience again and again and are motivated to learn to read and write. On the way, they develop critical thinking skills, become curious learners and develop emotionally. It’s a potential gamechanger for education in South Africa and Mrs Bhengu know it. She says: ‘Phambili with Nal’ibali, phambili!’

Story Powered Schools is a Nal’ibali initiative endorsed by the Department of Basic Education and made possible by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Story Powered Schools aims to spark learners’ potential and unlock their school success through multilingual reading and storytelling by placing stories at the heart of classrooms and schools. For more information about the campaign or the power of reading and storytelling, visit: and