When Peter Ndiwa was growing up in Kenya, his father, a teacher, brought home a collection of fables written in the Swahili language. “They meant something to me because I could read them in Swahili,” he told TriplePundit. “And because they were stories and not course books, I could relate to them.” They were, as he said, “human tales,” and they inspired him to become a teacher and a writer.
Ndiwa’s latest book, “Go Stella Go!,” tells the story of a girl who wants to become an engineer and explores the changing perceptions of girls and their abilities. Written in Swahili, it’s one of the latest projects from NABU, which publishes books in mother tongue languages on a digital app to make literacy accessible to children everywhere.
NABU aims to boost childhood literacy by publishing books in mother tongue languages
NABU gets its name from the Babylonian deity of wisdom and learning, and the nonprofit aims to bring that reverence for the written word to children by enabling them to read in their mother tongue.
“We’re inspired to bring every child the essential tools they need to access literacy,” Tanyella Evans, executive director and co-creator of NABU, told TriplePundit. “There are 250 million children who can’t access education, and illiteracy disproportionately affects women and children. Two-thirds of the global illiterate population are women, and that number hasn’t changed in 20 years. Women and girls are disadvantaged economically because they’re not gaining essential literacy skills, and the pandemic has made NABU’s work even more urgent with school closures.”
The three key components of NABU’s model are the publishing of books in mother tongue languages, digital access, and reading engagement with families to support literacy development at home and in school. Before starting NABU, Evans worked as a teacher in Uganda and Haiti, and a commonality she noticed was that everyone had access to a mobile phone, even in the poorest areas. “I could spend my life building schools,” Evans told TriplePundit, “but it’s going to be a drop in the ocean. I wanted to make this a platform, a reading app, to reach families where they already are, on devices they already have.”
The benefits of mother tongue books
Books in mother tongue languages make reading accessible for children. “Telling culturally relevant stories in our mother tongue is a way children can relate to them,” Ndiwa told TripePundit. “In Kenya, English is a second language, so children don’t learn it until middle schooling years. They can read our stories [from NABU] at a very early age.”
Indeed, having access to books in the mother tongue is one of the most effective interventions for children in early grades, Evans said. “It helps children who don’t speak a dominant language at home bridge into learning the official language of their country,” she told TriplePundit. “In Haiti for example, 95 percent of children speak Haitian Creole, yet the school system is in French. The first day children are in the classroom, they’re expected to learn in French. The result is that some children spend four or more years in school without learning how to read or write.”
The United Nations notes that mother-tongue education facilitates learning and improves skills in reading, writing and mathematics, and NABU has ambitious goals to address underserved languages around the world. “Our vision is for NABU to be everywhere,” Evans told TriplePundit, “like the deity [we’re named for], to be omnipresent.”
So far, NABU has 2,000 books on its app, and it has published collections of 160 books in three mother tongues: Haitian Creole, Kinyarwanda and Swahili, with content also available in French and English for children to bridge to those languages once they gain the skills.
Some of these books are developed at NABU’s Authentic Book Creation Lab (ABC Lab) in Kenya, where 40 authors and illustrators work to develop their skills and create books. “Go Stella Go!” is one of the titles developed in the ABC Lab, where the NABU team brought in local artists to shape the story from their own experiences.
“We’re creating a repository of culturally-relevant stories for generations to come,” Beryl Oywer, program manager for NABU in Kenya, told 3p. “When I was growing up, we would sit in a hut upcountry, and my grandmother would tell us stories. We would have tea and hear her stories. But that’s going away. When we put these stories in a digital format, it ensures that we continue to preserve our culture.”
Representation in literature builds children’s self esteem
Additionally, mother-tongue books can improve a child’s self esteem and sense of self worth. “If these children see themselves reflected in stories, they’re more likely to want to read,” Evans explained.
NABU’s books are designed to uplift and focus on issues like developing resilience, combating gender discrimination, and empowering girls to educate boys in their communities. The stories have a real impact on children like Belize, a 9-year-old girl Evans met in Rwanda, who walked two hours to the nearest library to read books in Kinyarwanda on the NABU app. Once shy and afraid to speak up, reading helped Belize come into her own.
“She read a story in Kinyarwanda to a group at the library, a story about a cheeky rabbit,” Evans remembers. “She was confident, standing in front of everyone and reading in her mother tongue. Mothers stood at the edge of the room, and it was remarkable for her to be celebrated in that context. [Our books] are about helping girls share their ideas fearlessly. To see the power of literacy, to build a child’s confidence in their value and worth is what keeps me doing this.”
Empowering girls is also what inspired Ndiwa to create “Go Stella Go!” He noted that in many countries, stereotypes remain strong about careers for girls versus careers for boys, and many people still doubt the abilities of girls, despite proof that girls are succeeding. “This is the narrative we should change,” he said. “[I wanted] to point out that girls can do as well in life and in their capabilities and leadership as boys, and to point out to the boys that they can support the dreams of girls, rather than seeing them as competitors.”
Ndiwa already has plans in the works for future books, with a focus on stories that preserve children’s connection to their culture. “There are a lot of stories to write and pass on to the next generation,” he said.
Bringing partners together to empower girls and build literacy
“Go Stella Go!” will be released on International Day of the Girl (October 11) in partnership with Girl Rising, a nonprofit that looks to build confidence in girls and help whole communities stand up to gender discrimination. The two partners were brought together by HP, which is supporting both nonprofits as part of its aim to enable digital equity for 150 million people by 2030 through the Partnership and Technology for Humanity (PATH) initiative.
As part of its work with NABU, the technology company will establish the HP Creative Lab at the Kigali Public Library in Rwanda, which will train over 200 African authors and illustrators a year to publish hundreds of books for children in their mother tongue. It will also work with NABU to elevate the voices of marginalized communities in the U.S., beginning with a book about Asian-American discrimination.
The boost from HP will bring NABU closer to its goal to reach one million more readers by the end of 2021 and an additional 200,000 by March 2022. “We started this year with 95,000 readers, and now we have 750,000 readers who read at least 15 minutes a day,” Evans said.
Though the book and partnership will be launched to align with International Day of the Girl, NABU is adamant that boys have a critical part to play in improving girls’ literacy and opportunities. “We always try to align our content in a way that we’re including boys in this conversation,” said Oywer of NABU’s Kenya team. “We want to pass on the message that we can all be champions for equality and equity for girls and women. Through stories like ‘Go Stella Go!,’ we can see how boys can also help girls. All children’s rights are being protected and given an equal platform to rise to their greatest potential.”
For an author like Peter Ndiwa, being given stories that resonated with him in his own mother tongue led to a career teaching boys and girls to lift each other up and telling their stories through his new fables, anchored in his culture. The hope is that through access to mother-tongue books, a child today has that same opportunity.
To learn more about how NABU, Girl Rising and HP are working together to empower girls and build literacy, check out the Girl Rising International Day of the Girl Summit (October 1-3, 2021).