African Storybook Project brings digital books to kids

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A University of British Columbia professor of education is hoping to “harness local and international interest” for a project that aims to address the shortage of picture books available in African languages.

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Bonny Norton, research advisor for the African Storybook Project, told the Georgia Straight the “innovative” initiative’s goal is to boost early literacy levels in Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, and other countries.

“This is one of the greatest challenges in Africa,” Norton said by phone from her Vancouver home. “There are very few resources to become literate in the mother tongue.”

Earlier this month, the project’s website launched with 120 different stories in 20 languages, including Lugbarati, Kiswahili, and Kikamba. All of the digital books are published in English and at least one African language and made freely available under Creative Commons licences.

According to Norton, teachers and librarians in Africa download the books to computers and project them on walls for children to read. The project’s site also allows people from all over the world to read, create, and translate books.

“It’s also about ownership,” Norton said. “It’s not just stories that have come from England or stories that have come from the U.S. and Canada but Africans are constructing their own stories, writing their own stories, and uploading these stories that can be shared across Africa.”

Norton is organizing the African Storybook Summit, which will take place on Thursday (June 26) at UBC’s Digital Literacy Centre. She said the project, run by the South African Institute for Distance Education and funded by U.K.–based Comic Relief, involves several UBC students.

The professor noted that Canadians can contribute to the project by translating books into French or telling their connections in Africa about it.

“People even in Canada can use that site,” Norton said. “Here, locally, if you want to learn a little bit about Africa, you’ll be able to read stories in English and in French.”

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