Field Stories

The suspense is killing me

One_Thousand_and_One_Nights17“Those most often left behind are language minorities. Keeping the promise of the MDGs requires a new understanding of the critical role of language in human development. Because there can be no true development without linguistic development, only by putting language at the centre of development can we close the gaps and meet key targets of the MDGs and other global agendas such as Education for All and Education for Sustainable Development.” – Suzanne Romaine, Merton College Oxford

In the 1001 Arabian Nights, Sheherazade marries Shahryar – a king who, as a result of a bad break-up, is in the custom of executing each of his wives the morning after they are married. She, however, has a plan: each night she tells him a new story, breaking off her narrative at the most exciting point. The king is forced to delay her execution day after day, so that he can find out how the story ends – and listen to the beginning, and cliffhanger, of the next. So, night after night, the cunning queen manages to delay her execution.

by Alasdair MacKinnon

For the many South African readers of the FunDza Literacy Trust’s weekly short stories, the situation is different – but their response is much the same. The stories, by professional and semi-professional writers, are broken into seven short chapters designed to be read on a mobile phone, with each new chapter, often ending at a climax or cliffhanger, going live at one minute past midnight. It’s a modern version of Sheherazade’s ancient style of storytelling that keeps the readers coming back for more – even if, at times, the tension might prove unbearable. As one reader reacted recently: “Come on man, this is keeping me in suspension!”

While there are no kings threatening to chop anybody’s head off on the African literary scene (I hope), the task of keeping young readers reading is nevertheless hugely important. Literacy is the foundation of education, reading a crucial tool in language acquisition. Engaging stories can prove to be the inspiration for children to keep reading and improving their literacy skills. More broadly, literature can also be a powerful force for social change. However, in trying to supply quality stories to as wide a range of people as possible, promoters of literacy come up against many of the problems faced by educators in Africa today: linguistic and cultural barriers, digital divides.

Greig Krull, an Educational Technology Specialist, is involved in a project called the African Storybook. Currently being trialled in South Africa, Lesotho, Uganda and Kenya, it aims to create a multilingual online library of reading material – fiction, non-fiction, poetry, rhymes, songs, riddles – to get children more involved in reading and writing their first language. Creating content in multiple African languages is no easy task – there are words and idioms that cannot be perfectly translated, ideas that transmit only imperfectly – and even spelling can prove a tricky, though rewarding, challenge.

“In Uganda,” Greig explains, “the National Curriculum Development Centre has standard orthographies for only 12 of the 50 languages. Where no orthography exists, it means getting speakers of that language to do the translation together, during which they agree on what words, dialects and expressions they would like to use in the translations. This is often an interesting, but time consuming process.”

The ambition to create locally relevant content is shared by the FunDza literacy trust – which finds it is key to retaining the reader’s attention. “The stories we publish have a strong ‘local feel, and are often about issues that affect our readers every day,” says Mignon Hardie, managing trustee. “Our readers can relate to the characters, and the familiar scenes and contexts. So, they can see their own worlds, themes, issues and lives reflected through the stories they read, which can be a profoundly empowering experience.”

By involving local readers, translators and writers, the African Storybook and FunDza are turning literature into a social endeavour, and becoming involved in a broader change affecting literature under the influence of new communication technologies. Stories published online are not set in stone, as printed literature is; they are free to be shared and adapted by others, as is the case in all oral traditions. In rural Africa, access to expensive printed materials is limited, necessitating the use of the Internet to distribute reading material; either by mobile, social media platforms or local printing shops. This use of the Internet is closing the gap between the literary and oral traditions, upon which, Greig says, much of the African Storybook’s material is based. And at the same time it is helping literature to come alive for readers.

f47dcd4c-63dc-471c-969b-76c0836c85e1The FunDza Literacy Trust also uses ICTs to reach its audience – their mobi network currently has around 50,000 users. To make literacy learning more effective, it is trying to encourage young South Africans not only to read, but to write as well, as FunDza Fans – a scheme that has generated an extraordinarily positive response from participants. According to Mignon Hardie, “more than 400 young aspiring writers have had their work published in this section. And many of them have published substantial pieces of work.

“For instance, 17-year-old Vhuthu Muavha from Limpopo province sent in – over a period of five months – a 20,000 word novella that he had typed out on his Nokia feature phone… The dedication and determination that this demands of readers is testament to the value each places on having their work published in FunDza’s popular ‘library on a cellphone.’”

For Hardie, stories have a broader importance beyond the benefits they bring to literacy education. “Reading also deepens one’s understanding of other cultures and of human behaviour and it has been linked to the development of empathy, the vital skill of imagining what it is like to be someone else. This is critical for the development of tolerance and mutual respect – as once people can imagine how others feel, especially those different from themselves, social change can occur.”

Recognising the power of stories to inspire social change, the FunDza literary trust recently started a new programme to highlight issues identified within South African society.

But to find out about that, dear reader, you’ll have to wait for part II of this article, to be published on the 27th of April.

The story continues at eLearning Africa 2014 in Kampala, Uganda, at a session titled “Cellphone Stories: the future of fiction?” The programme is now online.

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