The Boy Who Carries a Fire: Libraries for Literacy in South Africa

by | Jun 9, 2023 | Heartivist Of The Week

In 2021, 10.5% of people 20 years and older were illiterate in South Africa, Department of Higher Education and Training of the Republic of South Africa

“I believe libraries can change the world. Learning to read without access to books is like learning to play soccer without a ball, impossible but relevant to many South African kids who are expected to become literate without access to books” Colin Bloom, founder of Libraries for Literacy. 

The words we speak allow us to interact, but the words we write can reveal the atlas of our soul and imprint thoughts of hope and equity indelibly into the spirit of others. Therefore, just like the French writer, Victor Hugo, once said: “To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark.” Colin Bloom has been carrying the torch of literacy in South Africa since he was only 12 years old.

The Absence of Words

Colin Bloom was born and raised in New York although he is a dual US/South African citizen. From an early age, Colin acquired the habit of reading, learning the great value of books. When he turned 12, he traveled along with his family to South Africa for the first time, an experience that would reveal a different reality and spark a noble purpose for the young boy.

“I was 12 years old the first time I went to South Africa. I remember walking through a grocery store where all the canned food had pictures of what was inside,” recalls Colin. “I was used to canned food that just had words, such as Campbell’s tomato soup. I was really curious about that and I pointed this out to my dad who grew up in South Africa. He explained to me that many people in South Africa can’t read.” That absence of words and the impossibility to read struck Colin and rendered him eager to do something about it. 

Literacy in South Africa

The Department of Higher Education and Training of the Republic of South Africa indicated that in 2021, 10.5% of South African habitants 20 years and older were illiterate and almost 4 million people were functionally illiterate.

Regarding children, the 2023 Background Report for the 2030 Reading Panel stated that the Progress in International Reading and Literacy Study (PIRLS) indicated that 82% of 4th graders couldn’t read for meaning in 2021, a percentage that increased due to the pandemic from the 78% that was registered in 2016 by the same instance.

Furthermore, the organization Equal Education noted that in South Africa only 8% of public schools have functional libraries. This represents that around 20,000 schools don’t have libraries, a place where students go to read and do their homework. And a survey conducted by the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA) noted that 41% of South Africans own ten books or fewer.

Libraries for Literacy

In the year following his trip to South Africa, Colin researched literacy statistics and was startled by what he learned. Colin believes that literacy is a fundamental human right and he was determined to do something about South Africa’s literacy crisis. 

“I hadn’t been exposed to a lot of people who were illiterate and that really changed my outlook on the rest of the world,” explains Colin. “To be able to operate in a modern world you need to be able to read. Many people take reading for granted but I can’t imagine not being able to read the instructions on a medicine label or when you are filling out a job application. I think that completely impacts your life in a whole new way. I think books are like portholes to different experiences and adventures and every child should have access to books to go through the process of learning to read and then reading to learn.”

The young boy decided to take matters into his own hands and began collecting books to establish a library in South Africa. First, he contacted New York public schools to ask for any extra books they could donate. After that, Colin and his 9-year-old brother James started “Lemonade for Literacy” and “Brownies for Books” stands on New York City sidewalks where people could exchange books or money for lemonade and brownies. In addition, he collected donations from friends and family to buy books. Colin managed to collect 1,500 books that he and his family transported to South Africa to establish a school library. Libraries for Literacy was born.

A Uniting Fire

The first public school library Colin created was in Doornkop, Soweto, outside of Johannesburg in South Africa in 2020 and benefited 160 students. By 2022, he had opened his second library for 260 elementary children at Tshaneni Primary School in a remote rural village in KwaZulu Natal, South Africa. The third library was established in 2023 at the Senianya Primary School, in Mpumalanga to benefit 729 children. The last library was inaugurated this year at the Sihlekisi Primary School for 350 students, in the Sigagule Village, Limpopo, South Africa. 

“The greatest challenge has been obtaining African language books. This is a big problem in South Africa. There are 11 official languages in the country and children speak their African language until third grade when they start to learn English. The vast majority of books are in English and because there are so few African language books they get really expensive,” says Colin. 

Since 2019, Colin has supplied more than 10,000 books from New York City to four South African school libraries and purchased the appropriate local language books in Zulu, Sepedi and Xitsonga. He partnered with BOB Books and local NYC schools and libraries for donations of early reader English books. Additionally, he’s partnered with Breadline Africa, to supply prefabricated library buildings, African Storybook and Limpopo Press, to print African language children’s books, and Room to Read Africa for literacy support at the schools.

The Pollination Project

Colin had heard about The Pollination Project through word of mouth and he decided to apply for a seed grant in order to buy books for the last two Libraries for Literacy projects.

“When I found out I was going to receive the grant it was pure joy because the fund was very helpful for me,” remembers Colin. “I was able to buy around 300 Sepedi  and Xitsonga books with the grant.  I am really grateful with The Pollination Project, it really did make everything possible with the last two libraries.”

Colin recently attended a semester at the African Leadership Academy in Johannesburg, South Africa and he returned to the two most recent libraries in the provinces of Mpumalanga and Limpopo to help teach literacy. He also had a Zoom meeting with 2 classrooms of 5th grade students, one in the USA and one in South Africa, so the children could establish a global connection.

“I am most hopeful for a world where children at least have the chance to become literate and to be able to decide where their own life goes because if you are illiterate it’s really hard to do that, to script your own life,” explains Colin. “The most rewarding thing is seeing the joy in the kids’ faces as they learn to read. This work has brought a new perspective to me. I realized I was kind of in a secluded portion of the world and everyone should try to work to affect the world in a positive way. It has changed me in a way of not just seeing a problem and feeling bad about it but trying to do something to change it.”

 

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