Poverty, ignorance and disease. At Independence, Kenya identified these three as the most important challenges to tackle in the country’s path to development. Fifty-four years later, poverty is biting. Ignorance remains a big challenge. And disease is rampant.
One afternoon in May, I visited a primary school in Isiolo County. In the company of colleagues, we were delivering text books to the school as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) programme called Newspapers in Education (NIE).
In typical Kenyan primary school style, the students entertained us with songs and poems, thanking us for visiting them and for the donation of books. The programme co-ordinator then engaged the students in a question-and-answer session about current affairs and sports.
The children’s eyes lit up as they named their favourite local and international football teams and players. They knew the names of their local MCA, Member of Parliament, woman’s representative and governor. They were clearly aware of their dire environment, and yet also hopeful that the world was big enough for them to eventually overcome their immediate problems.
At the end of our visit, some of the students were selected to attend a school sports competition that would take place the following day. I imagined that they had read in the newspaper about successful Kenyan athletes like the world 800 metres champion David Rudisha and javelin star Julius Yego, who learnt how to throw by watching YouTube videos.
Early this month, we held another CSR activity at a school in Likoni in Mombasa County. The school was similar to the one in Isiolo in terms of poverty. The classrooms had mud walls, dirt floors and iron sheet roofs. For many children, their uniform was incomplete, mismatched or torn. The toilets, built by the county government, were the only fully stone structures, perfectly constructed and painted. Next to the toilets, the classrooms, built using meagre donations from the parents, were an eyesore. The classrooms had half-mud half-brick walls, and dirt floors.
However, the students at the Mombasa school are not yet on the NIE programme and as such do not receive newspapers. As they entertained us with songs and poems, it was evident that their primary concerns were top on their mind.
Even though they appreciated the books, their main issue was that we had not come bearing food. Teachers in the early education section, for children aged three to six, told us how they had to create a feeding programme as some of the children would faint in class due to hunger.
In addition, some of the girls in upper primary are likely to be married off in the near future. With all these issues on their young minds, the students’ engagement with the speakers was muted.
Now, the difference in the way the students from the two schools related with us could be attributed to various factors. Both sets of students face the challenges of poverty and disease. However, the difference in how they see and interact with their similar situations could be attributed to access to information.
The Newspaper Association of America Foundation research shows that students who read the newspaper in school show significantly greater interest in local government, neighbourhood events, current issues and foreign affairs. They also have more positive attitudes toward the newspaper and sharpened thinking skills, and are more likely to read it on their own.
Choosing careers is one of the ways in which newspapers can help children decide what they would like to do with their talent. They can identify with role models, and chart possible paths to success. Occasionally, a news story could feature their school, or talk about a contest or competition they had taken part in. The pride in their achievements would transform their outlook on life.
NIE is also beneficial to teachers and parents. The research noted that students who read newspapers had better relations with their families and people in authority. This was evidenced in the confidence that the children at the school in Isiolo exhibited.
Newspapers are also more timely than textbooks, as they are updated daily and keep students informed on current events. Teachers can use newspapers as supplements to the textbooks we had brought. And they need to be updated on current affairs as well. The wealth of information found in newspapers could add value to their teaching skills, styles and interaction with each other, students and parents.
Teachers would be aware of changes to education policies by the Ministry as soon as they were announced instead of waiting for the circular to arrive at their remote locations.
The Newspaper Association research also found that children who frequently read newspapers are more likely than non-readers to be reading other things in daily life.
Considering that newspapers contain articles on current affairs, politics, science, technology, health, sports, business, international relations and much more, they can be used as teaching tools in themselves. They connect classwork to the real world. Picture a high school business or economics class discussing articles from the Business Daily newspaper. Or students starting their own school newspaper and becoming future journalists.
Both schools had student presidents, chosen by the students themselves. Considering that Kenyan newspapers adequately cover politics, the students can learn important lessons on leadership, both the positives and the pitfalls to avoid.
Newspaper cartoonists accompany the team on some of the CSR visits. Although art (unfortunately) is not an examinable subject in the current curriculum, talented students are motivated to hone their craft knowing that is could earn them a living. They also learn about the nuances of a newspaper cartoon, and how a picture could tell a story better than a thousand words can.
Here is a group of readers who look to the publications as their primary and sometimes only source of information about their world.
One of the reasons given for why students do not read newspapers are the availability of other sources of information like television and the Internet. When young learners develop the habit of reading the newspaper, they continue to see it as a reliable source of information, whether in its physical printed form or digitally. Most newspapers have websites and digital versions, so, when these students in remote areas of the country finally have access to the Internet, the reading culture will have been firmly established and will simply be transferred to an alternative medium.
The NIE system is fairly straightforward. Through subscriptions by the school, parents or donors, primary and secondary schools can get a minimum of 16 newspapers per week. There is no limit to the number of newspapers a school can subscribe to; some have subscribed for up to 160 newspapers a day. Most schools receive the Daily Nation and Taifa Leo, but some subscribe to only the Kiswahili newspaper to promote the language. Other publications are available on the programme as well.
A good reading culture inculcated in a young person can make the difference in whether they succeed or fail in life. A well-informed mind is the best security against the contagion of folly and vice, said Ann Radcliffe, an English author (1764-1823). One step towards solving ignorance (and eventually poverty and disease) is by getting children to read newspapers.
By SUSAN MUUMBI