On the tip of the mother tongue

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March 19, 2014 - by Corey Allen

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The African Storybook Project collects stories and translates them into a variety of African languages to be shared in the classroom through mobile phones, donated projectors and laptop computers. Photo: Bonny Norton.

A new digital storytelling project promotes literacy and preserves local folklore in Africa

Growing up in Uganda, Sam Andema used to write on his thighs in class. His parents couldn’t afford to buy him a notepad. “And I’d calculate mathematics on my arms,” he says.

Andema no longer does long division on his limbs. He’s an educator now, teaching Ugandan children how to read by using stories downloaded from his cellphone.

“Storytelling is a way of life for us,” he says. “But more needs to be done in the African school system to tap into this traditional, cultural heritage to make teaching and learning exciting for kids.”

Andema is part of a new project that seeks to do just that by promoting multilingual literacy in sub-Saharan Africa through the use of technology.

The African Storybook Project is an open access website that collects stories for download and translates them into a variety of African languages to be shared in the classroom through mobile phones, donated projectors and laptop computers. The project currently has 120 stories translated into 18 different languages. The stories address a lack of resources in the continent’s current education system.

Curriculum in many African countries stipulates children be taught in their native language until around Grade 4 and then transition to the country’s official language, often English or French. A lack of resources makes it difficult to teach children in their first language.

“If you want kids to be literate in English, it is helpful to be literate in their mother tongue first,” explains Bonny Norton, the project’s research advisor and professor in Language & Literacy Education at the University of British Columbia. “Reading is the foundation of learning. Without literacy, kids can’t excel in other subjects.”

Some remote parts of Africa do not have electricity or access to the Internet, which is why Norton and her team get creative, using battery-operated or solar-powered digital projectors and cellphones to help reach students.

Digital storytelling strikes a chord

Capturing kids’ attention can be tough anywhere in the world, but especially in a continent where classes can have up to 100 or more students and roughly 40 per cent of people are illiterate, according to UNESCO figures.

Andema, who is also a doctoral candidate in Language and Literacy Education at UBC, says he’s astonished by the role digital literacy is playing in helping to overcome these challenges.

“When these digital stories are introduced, it strikes excitement in the children that we have not seen before,” he says. “Using an iPod or a cellphone makes kids excited to learn. It strikes a chord in them.”

Preserving oral tradition

Stories from the project are currently being used in Kenya, Lesotho, South Africa and Uganda across 14 pilot sites that include schools, community centres and libraries. Norton, who grew up in South Africa, says besides promoting literacy, the project also helps preserve traditional African folktales.

“If you want oral stories to live over time, they often need to be transmitted through the written word,” explains Norton, who begins her mornings with a 5 a.m. phone call to her colleagues in Africa. As a distinguished scholar at UBC’s Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies, Norton adds that the project presents an opportunity to make a lasting impact as a researcher.

“I want my research to be meaningful. I don’t want to spend years of my life only writing books or papers,” she says. “We need to work with teachers, as collaborators, to make a difference in classrooms and communities.”

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