Originally published on Medium | June 5, 2023
by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor
Books serve as a portal to the world, but when that world is overwhelmingly foreign to the reader, then it can be difficult to relate to the content. This pertains particularly to readers in the non-Western world, especially the African continent which is origin to only 2–3% of recorded published books globally (though this figure is likely inaccurate). Consequently, African children and youth are not seeing themselves accurately and sufficiently represented in books — which has repercussions down the line as it relates to self-image and leadership development. The deficiencies of the literary sector in Africa can be attributed to the prohibitively high cost of publishing and therefore the price of books, as well as oral tradition being the traditional method of storytelling and cultural preservation across the continent. Even as Egyptians were pioneering with papyrus and ancient Malians with their vast manuscripts, the written word for everyday purposes was not widely accessible to the masses to the extent that it is today. Within Segal Family Foundation’s portfolio are a few organizations working to address the dearth of representation in the global literacy and publishing industries. Their efforts are helping African children and youth not only see themselves in a realistic and inspiring light, but also develop the skills necessary for academic success and ultimately bigger things.
Frustrated with the lack of younger children’s books featuring relatable African characters, Nyana Kakoma started writing stories for her own daughter. This collection became a blog, Sooo Many Stories, which over time evolved into a small publishing house. Today, the Sooo Many Stories Foundation in Uganda runs a mobile library called Booked! through which children receive a fresh set of storybooks every two weeks via motorbike delivery and get together for facilitated book clubs with the program librarians — or, as they are delightfully titled, ‘reading nurturers.’ The library’s model was born of the COVID-19 pandemic, when Uganda’s two-year school shutdown forced families to find creative ways to continue their children’s education. What started as loaning books to one family homeschooling seven children eventually grew into a wider network. This paid subscription service enables Sooo Many Stories Foundation to support Ugandan public schools (that seldom have libraries) to establish reading programs. Yet the Booked! collection, comprising both donated and purchased titles, predominantly houses stories from the United States and Europe, featuring geographic and cultural themes that are not relatable to the average African child. While this is inherently not a negative because it is important to learn about other ways of life, it does cause some resistance from local communities. For instance, Kakoma shared how one storybook showing a parent animal kissing its young and saying “I love you” received complaints from readers’ parents who were concerned that it was exposing their children to inappropriate behaviors because, in the African setting, affection is usually expressed differently. Then why not just stock more African children’s books, especially those in local languages? In Uganda, at least, such titles remain costly per-unit because of the correspondingly expensive publication costs; they are also often bought directly from the authors who themselves don’t have much in the way of margins.
Kakoma’s frustration is shared by Dominique Alonga, founder of Rwandan publishing house Imagine We. Having lived in the US growing up, Alonga acutely understood the importance and impact of racial and cultural representation — a pain point that may not be felt as strongly by those raised in places where they resemble the majority. On returning to Rwanda, she wanted to see more stories written not just about local experiences but also by local people. Working with local authors and with schools, Imagine We encourages students to write their own stories then selects some for publishing. Alonga noted that some of the initial submissions received were very Western-angled, further illustrating local children’s lack of storybooks to relate to. Given the country’s history, numerous books written by Rwandans centered on the 1994 genocide and there wasn’t much in the way of reading for pleasure’s sake. Alonga is working to expand the literary content available with some young adult titles among Imagine We’s publications, but is also looking to find creative, age-appropriate ways to address the genocide for younger children who were born after the fact. She notes that in certain communities, engagement with books often goes beyond reading: when visiting some rural areas, the Imagine We team would find book pages used as covers for other books, or pictures cut out and stuck on walls. It is important for those in the literary space to not be dismissive of these other forms of book appreciation, even as the goal is to foster reading habits. In Alonga’s words, there is very little room for error when working with underserved communities. Introducing new ideas and skills calls for mindfulness about context.
Aaron Kirunda of enjuba echoes these sentiments, adding that literacy efforts in Africa would do best to cultivate the field as a whole from publishing to reading. By investing in education through the Uganda Spelling Bee (which at one time had a competition in local languages), a publishing house for children’s stories, and an early childhood learning “laboratory,” enjuba is looking to catalyze long-term development from the community level. Kirunda is no stranger to the challenges of publishing in Africa — as well as the issue of book dumping, in which organizations in Western countries send shipping containers of donated texts that are not actually useful and become a burden for the local recipient organization to dispose of. Localization of literacy includes reducing reliance on foreign published content, along with encouraging consumption of locally-produced materials, in the service of creating opportunities for individuals and communities to see themselves within the pages. As is the case with other such initiatives, Nyana Kakoma was not expecting to see the fruits of Sooo Many Stories’ labors until several years had lapsed. However, she was recently pleasantly surprised to receive news from one Booked! member, a teenage girl who has been with the program since childhood, announcing that she was starting a small library of her own for kids in her neighborhood. With the collective efforts of our partners, including Jifundishe in Tanzania and 40 Days Over 40 Smiles in Uganda, literacy can be an effective tool for sustainable localization through improved learning outcomes that support better homegrown leadership up the road.