Literacy: Rwandan students simply won't find time to read in English

Amola Umukani is a Senior 4 student, but has never read a single fiction story written in the English language. "I've never read a fiction story in English," she says.
Students attending a lesson. There is need to avail them with more reading materials to boost literacy. (Timothy Kisambira)
Students attending a lesson. There is need to avail them with more reading materials to boost literacy. (Timothy Kisambira)

Amola Umukani is a Senior 4 student, but has never read a single fiction story written in the English language. “I’ve never read a fiction story in English,” she says.

Amola is one of the many students in the country whose language of instruction in class is English but struggle when it comes to reading. 


In a survey conducted by Youth Literacy Organisation (YouLI), a local non-government organisation, currently running training programmes in various secondary schools across the country, it was discovered that 10 out of 44 students admitted they had never read a short or fiction story.


In the same survey, 16 students said they had never written a poem. On the question of whether they prefer reading a story in a book or watching the same story as a movie, only six students chose a book.


It is such issues that YouLI seeks to address through nation-wide training programmes.

YouLI is a local non- government organisation run by Rwandan youth and seeks to engage as many young Rwandans as possible in activities that help them achieve their full potential through learning—to become effective communicators and lifelong learners, says Gilbert Rwagibwi, the executive director.

“Illiteracy rates [are low] and the government—mainly through the ministry of education together with private sector and civil society—has joined efforts in campaigns to promote reading in schools and communities,” says Rwabigwi. 

Yet despite various interventions, the youth still struggle to improve their literacy skills. That has been observed in various secondary schools across the country. “Language proficiency is still a challenge. There is also a significant lack of engaging content; most materials in schools are either old or irrelevant,” explained Rwabigwi. 

Out of 44 students, only 15 said they have ever read a story written by a young Rwandan. This reveals lack of locally written literature from Rwanda. “Our recent literacy workshops aim at engaging secondary school students who aspire to become writers in activities that encourage the love for literature, visual art and reading. We definitely need more young Rwandan authors to encourage Rwandan youth to read. Besides, the workshops are designed to help enhance students’ writing skills and discover their talents and aspirations in relation with themes around literacy and writing,” Rwabigwi added. This is YouLI’s newest programme. 

“Literature plays a vital role in enabling society to learn, think and express. It makes people travel, discover and understand concepts and potential. It contains all sorts of knowledge that Rwandan youth need to succeed in life”, Rwabigwi explained the importance of literature and literal skills.

Although Rwandan education system is in English since 2008, most of the students revealed remarkable difficulties in understanding, reading and writing English during the literacy workshops. A main reason is the lack of interest among students to read books in English. It is at that point that students enter into a vicious circle. 

According to Laban Balongo, a teacher in charge of clubs at Lycée de Kigali, students do not read because they do not feel comfortable with text books and novels in English. “But if they don’t start reading English, they will never get the language skills needed to make one feel comfortable with English books”, he said.

Besides the language aspect, there are very many reasons to read. “Actually knowledge is power. A lot of knowledge is hidden in books. Students who read have access to knowledge from all over the world, they discover a lot,” Balongo explained. “And definitely students who read perform much better in class than those who don’t read,” he added.

Indeed, a big number of students are aware that improved reading and writing skills could help them achieve their academic goals. That is another result of the survey with 44 participants of the literacy trainings by YouLI where all participants agreed that there is definitely a relationship between good performance and literacy skills.

There must be other reasons than language proficiency why students do not like to read and to write creatively. Balango mentioned some of them: They include lack of time and the local culture. “In Rwanda, it is not our culture to read. This still has to grow step by step. It is the task of the schools to always encourage their students to read, to write, to develop their literacy skills in general as we do it at our school”, he said. 

During the literacy trainings of YouLI, students are taught that the key to literacy is practice, said Rwabigwi. Therefore the training programmes compose of practical sessions. “But, understanding the notion of literacy way beyond the basic definition of being able to read and write also important to note,” Rwabigwi added.

When schools are doing their job well, there is hope that literacy levels among Rwandan youth will continue to rise considering the fact that almost all children of primary school age attended school in 2012 under universal primary education. 

According to numbers of the National Institute of Statistics of Rwanda, only 5.1 percent of females aged 7-18 years and 6.2 percent of boys with the same age have been declared never attended school in 2012. 

According to the fourth Rwanda Population and Housing Census (2012 RPHC), whose results were released early this year, the percentage of literate Rwandans aged 15 years and above increased from 64.4 percent in 2002 to 68 percent in 2012.

Males are still more literate at 72 percent compared to females at 65 percent. A person is qualified as literate if he or she is able to read, write and understand at least one language. According to UNESCO (2008), literacy is “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society.”

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