Most children take for granted books in their own language - the letters, words and phrases they've heard spoken since infancy by their families. But not in Angola, a country torn by civil war from the 1970s to the 1990s, where many children have never seen a book in their native tongue.
"So that is the language of my grandmother," says seven-year-old Valdimir Sozinho Paulino Fernando, picking up for the first time a book in Olunyaneka, a language spoken in southern Angola, at a recent teacher-training workshop in Lubango, capital of the mountainous province of Huila. "I am so happy to see that now there are textbooks in that language so I can learn it and practice."
Adds his six-year-old sister Ana Carlota: "I can't read at this stage what is written in these pages, but I do want to learn."
The books are part of a Pearson project - in conjunction with the Angolan government and the Monteno Institute for Language and Literacy, a South African not-for-profit group - to introduce texts in seven indigenous Angolan languages (plus Portuguese) to a country that is eager to revive its unique languages and cultures. Angola, a country of 13 million people, gained independence from Portugal in 1975, but was then tattered by 27 years of conflict.
Schoolchildren like Valdimir and Ana Carlota are taught in Portuguese when they get to school, but Angolan education officials say many could make greater progress in class if they learned their native languages in written form at an early age - because they are speaking those dialects with parents, grandparents and others in their communities.
"It allows the students to understand the work in their own languages," says Judite Seabra Martins, director of the legal department in the Angolan Education Ministry. "We're having trouble teaching students in some areas in Angola because they're not being taught in their first language." Through the indigenous-languages program, she adds, "we hope to see a better quality of education, a better success rate."
The textbooks are produced by Longman, part of Maskew Miller Longman, the Cape Town-based educational publisher of which Pearson holds 50% in a joint venture. Pearson plans to soon raise its stake to 85%, pending regulatory approval.
The books are now being trialled in about 120 classrooms and are expected to be rolled out beginning in 2009, covering more than 1 million children, in a program that embraces the indigenous languages of Cokwe, Kikongo, Kimbundu, Ngangela, Olunyaneka, Oshikwanyama and Umbundu. The program will be assessed in 2011, with officials hopeful it will help reduce an illiteracy rate that stands at 35% nationally and higher in some rural areas.
There were once dictionaries produced for a few of the languages, some written by missionaries during the 1950s, but these are not found in the average household.
"Many children haven't seen any books, not even in Portuguese," says Ms. Seabra Martins.
So far, about 10,000 of the national-language textbooks have been distributed in Grades 1 and 2 (ages six to eight) in eight of Angola's 18 provinces, and the program is slated to eventually go nationwide and up to Grade 6. The Grade 1 books are 128 pages, while the Grade 2 version has 112 pages.
"This project will help to develop this country in the world, and also our next generations," says Maria Cristina Manuel, a teacher of the Cokwe language, spoken in northeastern Angola, who participated in another recent workshop for the new books in the national capital of Luanda. "Our kids will start learning the national languages in Grade 1 and should be able to speak and write it all their lives."
Preparation of the native-language textbooks is a painstaking process. In June, teachers, journalists and other people with good language skills gathered at MML offices in Cape Town to review proofs of the various texts - and to fix some words that could be misleading.
For example, in Portuguese a word that means "under" - as in a fallen pine cone that lies on the ground under the tree - means "buried" in some of the other Angolan languages.
"When we translate from Portuguese we can't do a literal translation, but we instead have to transmit an idea," says Domingos Massona, an Angolan radio journalist who is helping to prepare the textbooks in Ngangela, which is spoken in the eastern part of the country. "We can't do it word for word - it wouldn't make sense."
Making sense of an alphabet most children have never seen in written form will be a challenge for Angolan teachers and parents. For example, many of the children who will be learning to write their native language have never seen in writing the letter "k" - because the letter doesn't exist in vernacular Portuguese, only for certain proper names.
That's hardly a worry for Rosa Helena Paulino, the mother of Valdimir and Ana Carlota, who says helping her children learn to read and write in Olunyaneka is a task she welcomes.
"For me it is such an amazing thing to see my national language in textbooks," she says. "I would never imagine that that could be possible one day. Learning Olunyaneka will allow my kids and all the youngest generation to keep our traditions and culture alive. I am really happy about it."
Pictured above: Covers of Angola textbooks in the Ngangela and Olunyaneka languages, and a lesson page from the Ngangela book.
Valdimir Sozinho Paulino Fernando and his sister Ana Carlota, standing next to their mother Rosa Helena Paulino, look at textbooks in their native language of Olunyaneka.
Teachers in Lubango doing some practical exercises in their national languages.