Children Become Readers in Malawian Village

A volunteer teacher discusses the letter “n” at an after-school reading camp in Mbeti, Malawi.
A volunteer teacher discusses the letter “n” at an after-school reading camp in Mbeti, Malawi.
Catherine Kazmirski
Parents, teachers, volunteers teach reading basics to youth
“Before, I could not read or write. Now I can read letters and syllables because I have learned with my daughter.”

June 2014—On a sunny Monday afternoon, dozens of children have gathered just outside the small village of Mbeti, Malawi. One group sits in a circle, reading a story about a hippo and a hare. Another group practices syllables out loud: “dwa, dwe, dwi.” Another plays an educational version of hopscotch, calling out names of letters written in each square.

The children range in age and size, from the almost-toddler to the lanky 10-year-old. They have self-organized according to grade level and interests. Adults monitor, but each group has appointed a young leader. At the sound of a whistle, all the children drop their games and rush into a nearby schoolroom, ready for today’s lesson: the letter “n.”

These enthusiastic children are participants in a Tiwerenge Ndi Ana Athu (TiANA) reading camp in Traditional Authority (TA) Mlumbe, Zomba, in southern Malawi. TiANA, funded by USAID, works in 10 primary schools in 110 villages in TA Mlumbe, including Mbeti, reaching 9,000 students and 20,000 community members. TiANA helps children in grades one to four develop and improve their reading and writing skills in Chichewa and English, since English is the official language of instruction beginning in first grade.

The activity involves the entire community—parents, teachers, community leaders and volunteers—in nurturing an environment in which children read and write regularly, in and out of school. Tiwerenge Ndi Ana Athu means "let's read with our children."

TiANA trains teachers and provides appropriate learning materials for the classroom. Professional and volunteer camp facilitators host after-school reading camps that include pronunciation lessons and educational games. If the children’s enthusiasm about their Monday afternoon activities is any indication, the camps are a resounding success.

Parents and teachers credit TiANA with improving their children’s lives—and sometimes, their own. Violet Chongwa, a woman whose daughter attends regularly, says: “Before, I could not read or write. Now I can read letters and syllables because I have learned with my daughter.”

The reading activities supplement lessons already taking place in government schools, reinforcing the curriculum and giving children opportunities to practice.

The students aren’t the only ones excited about reading. Community leaders, who work in partnership to make TiANA successful, are equally passionate.

Josephy M’phinya, Machado 2 village headman, is thrilled that children now have a place to spend time in a constructive way. “The TiANA changes our students’ behavior,” he says. “Children are looking forward to school .… It has become appealing for children to come to the camp, and go back to school the next day.”

Why does the TiANA activity work so well? Richard Fadweck, a member of a local community literacy group, believes there are two reasons: strong community partnerships and innovative use of local materials.

Community leaders work with parents, teachers, volunteer committees and school teachers to spread the word about TiANA and encourage parents to send their children. They convene meetings to discuss problems and agree on solutions, some of which are remarkable: organizing a village savings and loan in order to buy new classroom materials, for instance. Communities work together to create lessons that use local materials—alphabet hopscotch is just one example. Schoolrooms are full of colorful homemade alphabet posters and cardboard letters.

The TiANA activity started in September 2012 and concludes in September 2014.  But Solomon Nasiyaya, vice-chair of the local Youth Literacy Movement and active participant in TiANA, is optimistic about the future. “We hope to continue the camps. The materials we use are simple and available. The community supports us. The parents are involved. There is a lot of momentum.”

The partnership is giving Mbeti’s children a priceless gift: a love of reading.