Reading Materials Reaching Rural Women

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Learn with Echo readers.

A long-standing community engagement project on UKZN’s Pietermaritzburg campus serves rural women by providing accessible reading material in the form of a free educational newspaper supplement.

Over the 23 years of its existence, almost all the contributing staff members who produced Learn with Echo have been women and currently three women UKZN staff members are responsible for its continuation.

Adult Education Lecturer Ms Sandra Land, a literacy and languages specialist, has been involved from the beginning in various capacities, most recently as Project Co-ordinator.

Lecturer Ms Kathy Arbuckle trained in Fine Arts and teaching, and her early work of doing illustrations for Learn with Echo led her into the study and practice of all aspects of producing adult education media, including writing, editing and design.

Ms Taadi Modipa joined the project after studying adult education at UKZN, and brings a gift for writing and translation, as well as her experience of community development and environmental activism. Besides writing, Modipa is also involved in the design and layout of Learn with Echo.

All three women have included Learn with Echo in their research and teaching activities in various ways, and continue to do so. There have been valuable lessons learned over the past decades with others working in the literacy and adult education fields, as well as assisting with evaluating the project. In addition, the project is becoming an increasingly fertile ground for students’ postgraduate research activities, and serves UKZN’s goal to become a research-led institution.

Most recently, Land’s PhD investigates the differences between reading isiZulu and English, and what the implications are for language teaching. Arbuckle’s research explores visual literacy, and the communicative potential and limitations of illustrated educational texts for readers with low-literacy.

Modipa is investigating the use of two languages in bilingual educational texts, and is passionate about the rights of persons with disabilities. Part of her work involves facilitating focus groups with Learn with Echo readers, to gather information on how the supplement is used and how it can be improved. This adds to information gained from several readership surveys conducted over the years.

‘It seems miraculous that, after 23 years, the Learn with Echo continues to be published every week, having outlived similar publications from the adult literacy “heydays” in the early 1990s,’ said Arbuckle. ‘This project’s success is due not only to many years of dedication from UKZN staff in the Centre for Adult Education, but is also thanks to the on-going partnership with The Witness newspaper (which started the Echo community newspaper), and many different funding  partners.’

This project is set to continue addressing the gap in educational resources for educationally disadvantaged adult learners and rural women in particular. 

Arbuckle pointed out that the Bill of Rights in the Constitution of South Africa states clearly that everyone has the right to ‘a basic education, including adult basic education’.

‘Yet adult basic education remains the “Cinderella” of the education system, and visits to adult basic education classes reveal a severe shortage of appropriate reading and learning materials for this level, which hampers learners’ progress.

‘This affects women in particular, who make up the majority of learners in the few adult classes which function in rural areas. The availability of a wide range of reading matter at accessible language levels is vital to support reading development among new readers of any age.’

The Learn with Echo project started in 1990, as an initiative of the University’s Centre for Adult Education. It began with the aim of freely providing enjoyable and easy to read educational materials to adult learners in disadvantaged communities. The articles are in easy to read English and isiZulu, and include a popular bilingual picture story.

Every week 73 000 copies of the four-page Learn with Echo educational newspaper supplement are distributed with the free Echo community newspaper in Pietermaritzburg and surrounding areas.

Learn with Echo reaches audiences further afield through a subscription service which is currently free to non-profit organisations, adult literacy groups, and government schools. These copies of the supplement mainly go to individuals and schools in rural KwaZulu-Natal, although there are subscribers in the Western Cape, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and Gauteng provinces.

The content of Learn with Echo is varied, covering topics including current affairs, financial literacy, health, numeracy, life skills, early childhood development, and most importantly, entertainment.

There is also a strong focus on serious gender issues, and the social problems affecting women and children. Learn with Echo regularly features articles on domestic violence, dealing with rape (including where and how to report rape, medical treatment, and where to get counselling and emotional support), accessing grants, and using the law to get maintenance from fathers.

In 2012 a series of articles written in both English and isiZulu provided detailed information on the laws governing the employment of domestic workers.

Male readers are not excluded, however, and are considered an equally important audience. Articles take the approach of presenting different perspectives, and then ask readers to reflect and make up their own minds. Positive role models and support groups for men are promoted, along with information on communication skills and non-violent problem solving.

Articles on early childhood development, parenting and life skills cater for both men and women. Many Learn with Echo articles are developed in consultation with local organisations including Lifeline/Rape Crisis, Justice and Women (JAW), FAMSA, the Department of Justice, PACSA and the uMphithi Men’s Network.

The uMgungundlovu District Municipality has shown confidence in the project, by commissioning articles in the supplement as a means to educate residents in the district about municipal issues. The project is well-positioned to respond to requests for articles on current issues that those working in organisations “at the coalface” discover to be problems that need public attention and education. 

Learn with Echo articles also celebrate success stories. For example, the Family Literacy Project (FLP) in rural KwaZulu-Natal has shown that women with little or no formal education can use literacy in their homes and in groups with myriad benefits for their families and their communities, and we share such stories.

Learn with Echo is also used as learning material at FLP centres and by many other similar groups. Other success stories covered include articles on savings groups which are improving the lives of thousands of rural women, facilitated by Pietermaritzburg-based organisations such as SaveAct and Zimele.

Learn with Echo has also published financial literacy articles for rural women, in support of the on-going Financial Literacy campaign run by the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Treasury. More articles on financial issues aimed at woman and vulnerable groups are in the pipeline.