PORT MORESBY - The statement, ‘PNG does not have a reading culture’, kept popping up among authors and publishers gathered at the National Library during the National Book Fair in October.
“What’s the point of writing and publishing books, if people are not reading them,” asked Professor Steven Winduo during the week, which had the hopeful theme, ‘PNG Books, PNG Knowledge, PNG Stories - Read PNG’.
Winduo’s was a tough statement for me as a new author and a person passionate about promoting writing and publishing in Papua New Guinea.
At the end of book week, I sat in a quiet place and reflected on everything that took place.
I decided that, as part of my journey promoting PNG literature, I would try to find the underlying cause of the claimed ‘not reading culture’.
I told myself that, in every school I visit to talk about writing and reading, I would see if they had a school library, check if the library had a variety of books, find out if the teachers had an active reading and writing program with their students and determine any additional challenges.
My goal: I believe a writer’s job is not only to point out problems but offer solutions.
During my recent travel to Popondetta, I visited six schools - Popondetta Secondary, Resurrection Primary, Resurrection Elementary, Inonda Primary, Higaturu Oil Palm International and Waseta Primary.
Higaturu receives support from the oil palm company and is an outstanding school in terms of classrooms, teaching and ancillary staff.
It was much like other private schools I visited in Port Moresby like Paradise College, St Joseph’s International College, Sunrise Bethel School and the Caritas Secondary and Elementary Schools.
Popondetta Secondary has a library with books but cannot cater for its current student population. Inonda Primary also has a library but I could not have a look at it. Resurrection Primary, Resurrection Elementary and Waseta Primary do not have libraries.
As a result, very many students have no access to reading books. When books get donated, teachers take them home and over time they are stolen or misplaced.
So, although there may be books, storage is an issue because there are no libraries. The result is that students do not have access to them.
Out of 40 students I spoke with at Waseta Primary in the Sohe district, a 45-minute drive from Popondetta, only five knew how to read.
It was disappointing to learn that almost all Grade 8 students who sat for the recent national examinations did not know how to read and so could not do their exams.
Although the school has a library, they had to convert it into a classroom and the few books there were mostly encyclopedias. I wondered how a school accessible by road did not have a stocked library. I also wondered why almost 90% of students could not read and write simple English.
I thought of the schools out there in Musa, where the only access is by walking the bush tracks or dingy. I tried to reason, but nothing made sense.
It was interesting to observe that students whose schools had a decent library could interact with me by asking questions, nodding, smiling and responding to my questions whereas students from schools that had no library stared blankly at me as I spoke.
I learnt during my interaction with teachers that most students come to school without knowing how to read or write.
“Education begins at home,” one said. Parents need to play their role by imparting basic knowledge to their kids before sending them to school.
For parents in the cities and towns, we can say they may be inattentive to their children’s needs; for parents in remote areas, it is because they themselves cannot read and write.
In Popondetta, the Anglican church provides adult literacy programs and it also may translate English into local languages to make learning easier.
The teacher to student ratio is around 1:40 and in most cases one teacher teaches two classes at the same time making it difficult for students to remain focused and dedicated.
Most teachers do not receive ongoing training or support, and as a result lack motivation.
As I stood in front of the students and stressed the importance of reading and writing, I realised that they had nowhere to go to find a good book to read.
Books with colour and a lot of artwork. Books that are attractive, books that could make them smile, laugh, sing and even dance.
Books that could help them develop their minds and fill them with imagination. Books that could change their entire world.
Some students ran after me asking me for books, but I only had a few copies and they were all donated. I fought back the tears that wanted to roll down my cheeks and promised I’d do what I can to bring more books to them.
When the 2017 Crocodile Prize survey of provincial participation came out, there were only two writers from Oro Province. It is among the lower provinces in PNG in terms of development, and perhaps the worst in terms of education.
On average, five or six students make it past Grade 12 to get to university.
Those of us fortunate to go to school in Port Moresby can make use of avenues to get decent certification.
Those back at home find comfort in drinking home-brew, smoking marijuana and getting involved in petty crimes (boys) while girls get married at a young age or fall pregnant with no hope for their own future.
I distributed the remaining books Phil Fitzpatrick had given me for the schools I visited. And I prayed this was not my last trip as a writer from the province.
My solutions to address the lack of a reading culture is for the government to focus on:
- building more libraries across the country
- purchasing books to fully stock these libraries
- a curriculum encouraging students to read books and submit reviews (forming part of their assessment)
- supporting the Crocodile Prize and rolling it out to each province
Books unlock knowledge and, without writers, there are no books.
Without libraries, the books are inaccessible.
Without libraries and without books, knowledge is inaccessible.