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Why we create storybooks in African languages –Dorcas Wepukhulu

Dorcas Wepukhulu (Kenya) is co-founder and Partner Development Coordinator of African Storybook, an organisation that creates storybooks in indigenous African languages and English, French, and Portuguese. She was recently in Abuja for a workshop where writers and illustrators gathered from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Liberia. Here, she talks about the reason for the project, challenges they face across Africa, and more. Excerpts:

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Bookshelf: How was the project, African Storybook born?

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Dorcas Wepukhulu: It started with sharing my experience as a teacher with someone from the United States who was passionate about literacy in Africa. I shared with her the struggles I had as a teacher in High School, how children leave Primary School with a poor foundation in literacy, and the fact that one of the contributing factors was lack of reading materials for them to practice reading and to develop and acquire skills in literacy and feel comfortable through High School. Some of these children were forced to drop out because of poor performance. So, this person, who is passionate about literacy and is based in the US started talking about what we could do with Saide organisation, which stands for South African Institute for Distant Education. Saide, together with this person, developed a concept, and I made some input, on how African Storybook could turn out to be. From that moment, we thought of a digital solution that will enable communities develop stories in languages they are familiar with and have them on a website where educators can access and use them with children to develop their literacy skills. 

n This story is about a trickster spider, also known as Anansi in Akan folktales. ‘Pa Nase the spider and the village women’ is available in Themne and English. It’s also from the Abuja workshop

So, in 2013 the African Storybook started. The initial work involved mapping out partners in four pilot countries, South Africa, Kenya, Uganda, and Lesotho. And out of those four countries we identified partners, including governments and ministries of Education. In 2014 we launched the website and brought together some of the partners we identified, and basically started working on developing the website and looking for how to populate it with stories in local languages and other languages of wider communication like English, French and Portuguese. So, it has basically been growing and in 2017 we decided to expand out of the four pilot countries to Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria. 

In some of the countries, our storybooks are being used, although we aren’t there. People have come to know about African Storybook, and on their own, access and use them, and from time-to-time we get feedback.

Bookshelf: What are those early challenges you faced with the project?

Wepukhulu: Some of those we faced was that of power and internet connectivity. The partners we identified, like schools and libraries, some of them didn’t even have power. They were located in rural areas, and we didn’t have any specific criteria. The reason why we wanted to test out delivering models was to find out how and in which context we can deliver books digitally and where we will need to include print and maybe combine both. So, in some cases, teachers didn’t have power in their schools and so they took laptops given to them to charge in their homes and bring it back every morning to use. But then, in doing that, they could not use the standard projector which needs direct power. We gave them some hand-held projectors. This did not work. We gave them solar charging panels like suit cases. Some of them didn’t know how to take care of them, so they broke. Eventually, we couldn’t work with some of those anymore. Some we helped to get power and work continued. In the case of internet, we gave data to some partners to be able to access the website.  

Another challenge we encountered was the slow pace of, for example, ministry of education picking up the project and helping us work with them, so we had to keep going back and forth in some of our pilot countries before the ministries or departments of education came on board. Without their support there’s no way it could work. 

The last thing was getting feedback from those using our storybooks so we could know what was happening, the extent of use, challenges encountered and so on.

‘Magical Rainbow River’, a story also from the Abuja workshop, is available in Tiv, Pidgin, and English.

Bookshelf: What was the very first experience developing the African Storybook project like?

Wepukhulu: I can only speak about Kenya because that was where I was. There were three Primary Schools and one of the schools was located in the North-West, in a remote and arid area. My experience was a sense of joy. These people didn’t have any book in their local language and most of the children were monolingual, so they didn’t know how to speak in English. The only resource they got in their mother tongue was the African Storybook they could access. The joy also came from the children who had dropped out of school and returned because they were fascinated with the way teachers were projecting the stories on the wall and reading. Some of them thought they were reading storybooks from a television. So, for me there was a sense of accomplishment that a remote area previously cut off were benefitting and started telling other schools around about the availability of African Storybook.

Another experience was when I made a breakthrough with the Kenyan ministry of education in charge of materials development and rating, when I was able to get them to understand that African Storybook was an open education resource, and that they could use them for free and have students use them in schools. They were excited. Although the process was slow, the fact that they saw the value and were prepared to work with us, in terms of assuring the quality of the stories in Kiswahili in particular, was very important to me. 

Bookshelf: Has the African Storybook team come to Nigeria before 2018?

Wepukhulu: One of our colleagues came here in 2017 and met with Teacher Development Programme (TDP) staff. He introduced the African Storybook and some translations. Some storybooks were translated from the meeting. He and I came back in November that year to run a story development workshop, but it was mainly to quality-assure the Hausa storybooks that were translated when he came the first time. We met with TDP and they called in some participants, mostly Hausa speakers, to quality-assure the Hausa storybooks that were on the website. So, we had that workshop in November. The only challenge we had was when we were editing and couldn’t succeed in inserting the Hausa characters. That is a struggle we have been having, trying to find a Hausa expert to complete that task so we can actually be confident that the Hausa stories on the website are properly rendered. 

Bookshelf: For someone who hasn’t been part of your workshop, who just happens to learn about your website and knows how to write in English and an indigenous language, how would you advise him or her on how to contribute or use African Storybook?

Wepukhulu: On the website is a place where you can send an email and seek for assistance. Somebody who comes to the website and is unable to navigate can drop us an email. When they do, we always follow up, either people who desire to use our books or contribute. There’s always somebody available to respond. My work is Partner Development Coordinator, and so once I get a request like that I always follow it up. If they are from a country we visit, when I am there I try to alert the person so we can meet face-to-face, otherwise, I work with that person, and if I am unable to answer a technical question, I refer them to the technical team. 

For example, there’s somebody in Cameroon who has been using our books and translating. I have been on the phone, email and skype, guiding her on how to translate, edit and quality- assure them. Once she has them ready, I approve them. So, remotely, we can support a partner like that to contribute or use. But one of the things we request from people using our storybooks is to give us some feedback, tell us whether they are good or not, suggest changes and so on so we have an idea of the number of people using our books.

 

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