Nal'ibali supplements: spreading stories across South Africa

One of Nali’bali’s most successful campaigns has been to publish “the Nal’ibali” – a story supplement distributed in major South African newspapers – one every fortnight

21 January 2019 - 10:24
By Carla Lever, nal'ibali AND Nal'ibali
The joy of receiving a Nal'ibali supplement.
Image: Supplied. The joy of receiving a Nal'ibali supplement.

Around December each year, Facebook is flooded with stories of Jolabokaflod: the Icelandic tradition of gifting books each Christmas eve, with families peacefully reading the night away together. People love it, posting cosy images of families gathering around twinkling trees with books in hand.

But, as we are well aware, South Africa is not Iceland. More books are written, sold and read per person there than anywhere else in the world – in fact, more than ten percent of Icelanders will publish their own book.

In South Africa, the story is much starker: eight of every ten grade four students are currently unable to read for basic meaning in any language.

It’s no surprise that if reading books is beyond the current ability of most South African children, buying books is far beyond their family’s means.

And yet, studies show that one of the most important factors in predicting a child’s future academic success is whether or not they have access to books. Exciting, engaging books create excited, engaged readers who, in turn, grow into capable, critically engaged adults.

Let’s be real: buying more children’s books in this country isn’t a realistic option. Publishing more books is going to take time. But we need change now.

Enter Nal’ibali: the NGO whose isiXhosa name quite literally means ‘here’s the story’.

Nal’ibali is passionate about spreading stories across South Africa. Affordable, mobile, quality reading materials are in short supply: ones that are fun and engaging are even rarer.

One of Nali’bali’s most successful campaigns has been to publish “the Nal’ibali” – a story supplement distributed in major South African newspapers – one every fortnight.

The supplements contain ‘cut out and keep’ stories, certainly, but more than that, they contain the means to enjoy them. Interactive activities get children engaging with the characters and questioning the application in their own lives.

A variety of translations mean that no child is excluded because of their home language, and a guide for teachers and parents helps break down the material for use in schools and for learning in the home. 

The supplements are already printed fortnightly in the Daily Dispatch, The Herald, and Sunday Times Express. In 2019 they will be joined by the Sowetan, appearing on Fridays. All this adds up: over 300 000 copies of the supplement are delivered every two weeks during term times.

Patti McDonald of Tiso Blackstar says they are honoured to be a partner in this project, where deliveries include deeply rural Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal schools as well as to reading clubs, libraries, schools and Post Offices in Gauteng, Western Cape, Limpopo, Free State, Northern Cape and North West. “When high-quality reading materials land directly in children and teachers’ hands, there’s no limit to what is possible!” she says.

But what of the rural schools out of the newspaper distribution area?

It turns out Nal'ibali have a plan for them too. Over 64 000 copies of supplements are delivered fortnightly, direct to deep rural reading clubs and schools, either through the postal service or by hand with a team of dedicated delivery people. 

What difference does a story make to a child living in a deep rural community?

"These supplements are more than just newsprint to communities,” says Jade Jacobsohn, Managing Director of Nal'ibali.

“We've had teachers who ventured through dangerous community protests just to collect valuable reading resources for their students. We weren't sure if children whose priorities were working in the fields would engage, but we found boys would actually return to school after taking their cattle out to graze, just because they knew that Nal’ibali would be visiting. It's incredible!”

Incredible it is. An independent 2018 external evaluation of the Nal’ibali supplement showed high use rates, particularly among reading clubs, and frequent incidence of key reading behaviours, like adults reading aloud to children.

Demand for the supplement is at an all-time high as well: 97% of reading clubs that don’t currently receive Nal’ibali supplements say they would like to.

"We couldn't do this without our team,” says Jacobsohn. “Our staff inspire me with their passion for promoting South African literacy and our more remote service providers quite literally go the extra mile. We've even had supplement deliverers who trekked across muddy hills and crossed flooded rivers when it wasn’t clear vehicles would make it: now that's dedication to the cause!"

Santa may not be visiting the South African book industry anytime soon, but, thanks to Nal'ibali, hundreds of thousands of children will wake up to the gift of stories every fortnight. 

South Africans nationwide will be celebrating World Read Aloud Day on Friday 1 February. Visit the Nal’ibali website at to download a copy of this year’s special story in any official SA language and to register your read aloud session. Last year the campaign read aloud to 1 million children and in 2019 it hopes to reach 1.5 million children. Join them and be part of SA’s literacy solution.