TANZANIANS know exactly what they want and it is not reading. Certainly not books, unless of course they happen to be school text books that one studies in order to pass examinations.
For years there has been this infamous adage which say: "If you want to hide anything from the locals, then put it in a book and even if it is large sum for money or gold, be assured it will stay hidden forever."
But this month in Arusha, reading has suddenly become fun again; digitized classic story books, school books and magazines made available on a cool-looking digital devices are making local Arusha children re-discover the magic of the written word.
A total of 50 primary school pupils in Meru District have become the first recipients of technological reading devices in the country and these e-readers enabled them to access nearly 4000 digital text and story books as well as world map atlases right from the palms of their hands.
The lucky pioneers for the 'e-readers' are the pupils of Upendo Primary School in Usa-River area of Meru, an institution which received 60 Amazon Kindle readers (each with an onboard keyboard) given to the school's class Five and Six pupils as well as their teachers. The special project is being executed under the 'Worldreader' organization in the United States of America which intends to connect millions of children in developing world with 3G radio enabled e-readers.
"We expect to ship in 100 more reading devices next year," said Mr Michael Smith, the Partnership Development Manager for 'Worldreader,' who revealed that his organization plans to reach over 200 million children "who do not have access to books" in Africa.
Smith revealed that more than 3,000 such e-readers have already been distributed in Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Rwanda, Malawi, South Africa and Zimbabwe. Arusha is the first in Tanzania to get the devices, with more expected for other schools next year when other countries like Ethiopia will also benefit. Ms Digna Massawe who teaches English, Mathematics, Science and Kiswahili subjects at Upendo Primary School admitted that the new concept of reading from an electronic device has breathed new life into the children's reading culture.
"And the devices are also encouraging school attendance because even those in lower classes, will strive to work harder in order to reach class Five, Six and Seven where pupils get to use e-readers in class," said the Madam. A class six pupil, Hassan Said, aged 12 said with 3,500 books inside a small, light and portable e-reader, he may soon have to ditch his cumbersome school bag with its contents of paper-based, heavy volumes of mostly text books.
The distributed 'Kindles' also have text to speech feature which upon command can read aloud whatever the reader is displaying on screen and this allows pupils to read text and listen to the related audio which may come in useful to help them pronounce words correctly.
The Kindles' highcontrast 'E Ink' display delivers clear, crisp text and images that anybody can read without eye strain and for extended periods of reading, 'E Ink' displays, according to experts, deliver the best reading experience. The Arusha-based, AFRICAID Tanzania is undertaking the e-book distribution project in the country and the programme manager, Ms Devotha Mlay pointed out that, apart from 'Kindles' other types of e-readers will also be considered in future.
"So far the 'Kindles' have the largest e-book library online from which the children can download more books via 3G or Wi-fi connectivity whenever they happen to be." Worldreader is a US based non-profit, public charity involved in developing and delivering e-reader technology.
The organization helps provide access to books for children in developing countries throughout the world. Children in the Worldreader programme will have access to materials ranging from hundreds of local African textbooks and storybooks, world newspapers and classic literature from around the world.
There are plenty of Swahili e-books as well. The Pupils and Students can read books from African authors like Meshack Asare and Chika Unigwe, Roald Dahl and the Magic Tree House stories and learn from local Ghanaian and Kenyan textbooks.
Smith is working with local Tanzanian authors and writers as well as publishers to see the possibility of digitalizing local contents from the country's various publications. By giving students access to a range of books by both local and international authors, Worldreader wants to empower students and communities to improve their education and lives.