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fundza-thumb18 July 2013 – Older South Africans often moan that the born-frees seem hooked on their cellphones. But the Fundza Literacy Trust is using teens’ phone obsession to get them hooked on something else: reading and writing for pleasure.

FunDzaThe fiction published by Fundza on its mobile phone network is written by poor young South Africans for poor young South Africans – exciting, relevant and authentic. (Image: Fundza Literacy Trust)18 July 2013 – Older South Africans often moan that the born-frees seem hooked on their cellphones. But one organisation is using teens’ phone obsession to get them hooked on something else: reading and writing for pleasure.

The Fundza Literacy Trust works to boost literacy among teens and young adults in township communities by popularising reading, building communities of readers and nurturing new and authentic young writing talent – all using mobile phone technology.

Every week a new seven-chapter story is uploaded onto the Fundza Fanz mobile network, and on Mxit. The story is serialised to encourage reading every day. Fundza’s fiction is engaging, uses plain language, is set in local townships and deals with issues that are relevant to young people’s lives.

Reading is the fundamental pillar of education. The more young people read, the more quickly they will get the language skills needed for study and work later in life.

“South Africa remains a society divided along racial and class lines,” says Nicci Giles, a fundraiser for Fundza. “Education, which provides the fuel for social and economic mobility, is largely failing the majority of young people.” South Africa is ranked near the bottom – 133 out of 142 countries – in the World Economic Forum's Global Competitiveness Report.

The name Fundza is derived “funda”, Xhosa for “to read”, and also plays on the “fun” of reading, and on South Africa’s internet domain, za. The organisation works with more than 130 groups to reach over 130 000 young people with its stories, and has built a virtual online reading club with some 350 000 active members of its mobi network.

“Our mobi platform – mobile phone-optimised internet site that feeds content directly into a Mxit portal – provides Fundza with opportunities to actually connect, communicate and collaborate directly with our beneficiaries,” says Giles.

Mentoring new talent

In late June Fundza launched its Mentoring our Future Writers programme, in which five published South African authors – Helen Brain, Michelle Faure, Sonwabiso Ngcowa, Joanne Hichens and Maire Fischer – will mentor five unpublished but talented aspiring writers from disadvantaged backgrounds: Singatha Busakwe, Jean-Paul Willemse, Mzimkhulu Mackenzie, Asavela Peko and Akhona Mafanya.

Together, the mentors and their clients will produce 10 short stories, which will be published on the Fundza mobi network from October to December this year. The stories will also be compiled into a print anthology and distributed to the organisation’s reading groups.

Projects like these are part of Fundza’s drive not only to nourish young writers’ talent, but to produce a body of fiction written by poor young South Africans for poor young South Africans – exciting, relevant and authentically South African.

Authentic content

“Quality content is king,” says Giles. “Teens appreciate authenticity and don’t tolerate being patronised. To ensure that Fundza makes the grade, its content is gritty and reflects the lives of young people in South Africa.

“It is never preachy but rather it opens up a platform through which teens and young adults can reflect on their lives and discuss the stories. The stories and accompanying discussion questions elicit positive responses from readers and allow for sharing and discussion.”

This local community voice can be heard from a sample of blurbs of books already published on the Fundza mobile network:

  • My Friend Kylie – Gosego and Kylie are best friends with one thing in common – they get teased. But that doesn’t matter as they have each other, that is, until the day that Kylie is forced to face something alone.
  • The School Dance – Dikeledi knows the rich kids at Eastend Academy – they don’t want anything to do with the poor scholarship kids and Dikeledi wants nothing to do with them either. That is, until Reginald arrives…
  • The Grizzly Bear Gang – Bra Slash believes a gang is operating in his township. His friends don’t believe him but after some murders, they are forced to see that ruthless killers are at large…

To get even more authentic writing on board, Fundza also invites young people to send in poetry and prose in any of South Africa’s official languages for publication on its mobi network. Fundza also hosts Write4Life creative writing courses that so far have trained young aspiring authors from such townships as Gugulethu, Makhaza, Nyanga, Masiphumelele and Mbekweni.

In March this year, Fundza was named by Fast Company, a leading progressive business media brand, as one of the World's Top 10 Most Innovative Companies in Education. The other nine nominees are based in North and South America.

“Literacy is a powerful tool with lifelong benefits,” says Giles. “The importance of reading cannot be underestimated in influencing choices, giving value to readers’ lives, enhancing critical and creative thinking and encouraging personal development. Literacy is a major driver of economic mobility and social upliftment.

Tools for cool

Getting teens to read means making reading “cool”, by building a community of readers. For this Fundza makes extensive use of a variety of online tools.

Young people are deeply familiar with interactivity, the ability to comment and discuss things online. For this reason, every chapter of every story has a comments section, with a question posed about the progress of the story to encourage discussion.

The first chapter of The School Dance, for example, elicited responses that read much like conversations young people have on Facebook and Twitter:

  • “Dikeledi is being foolish,u cant always show a guy dat u av a crush on him he will play u 4 a fool”
  • “Dikeledi is being very judgemental awt da way da new learner in class is cnductng hmself nt evry rich guy d8s da same gal in hs standards, regnald is jst takng hs tym 2 get usd 2 evry1 dats y he prtnds nt 2 care awt dikeledi”
  • “No she’s ryt smtyms u’v gt 2 thnk of de negatvs 2 gt a solution”
  • “Yeah_i min he’s a newbie nd mayb he’s shy!”

“We can see how Fundza’s stories are growing communities of readers nationwide,” says Giles. “We believe that this project will not only help to create the type of content that will excite and delight our readers, but also will help to develop our country’s future writing talent.”

Other tech tools include Mxit moola and airtime to get teens taking part in competitions, social media such as Facebook and Twitter, and a “please call me” number (SMS "plz cll me") to sign teens up for weekly updates.

But it doesn’t neglect the offline world: Fundza also uses existing networks such as established reading clubs, schools, libraries, and youth groups to distribute hardcopy books and learning material, and to popularise the online books.

“Apart from our outreach work, Fundza uses social media to connect with its other stakeholders – funders, media, beneficiary groups and partner organisations – to communicate, share, provide support, inform, generate interest or conduct conversations,” says Giles. “It enables us to fulfil our aim of working in partnership with organisations to deliver the best solutions for popularising reading and writing among teens and young adults.

“Fundza works hard to ensure that ideas generated in the virtual space become real-world activities.”

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