According to what statistics you use, Dadaab refugee camp is the fifth or sixth biggest city in Kenya. In the middle of 2017, its population was 250,000 and Norwegian Refugee Council (an international humanitarian organisation that focuses on displaced people) was running vocational trainings to give refugee youth the skills they need to earn a living and to help them rebuild when they return. But they found that poor literacy and numeracy skills meant that their training could only go so far.
NRC knew that we had developed literacy apps in English and Kiswahili with Aga Khan Foundation and asked if we could develop one in Somali. Since the war in 1992, many Somalis have grown up in refugee camps with limited access to education. Could we develop a literacy app that was meaningful to young people who had grown up in Dadaab and missed out on school?
We teamed up with SIL International, an organisation that has been running since the 1930s. Now it’s a haven for linguists, anthropologists and literacy specialists operating in over 100 countries. They have designed their own font, Andika, for learning-to-read in hundreds of languages (we use it in our literacy apps); they document traditional stories from remote communities; and are passionate believers in mother-tongue literacy. If you learn to read in your second or third language, studies show, the process is slower, and without that fundamental connection to your own language, much more difficult.
We visited Dadaab with SIL and talked to communities about the stories they tell each other. Many folklore stories appear to have echoes in other cultures, from Grimm’s fairy tales to Kipling. One story is about a crocodile who lends a fox his tongue, and then the fox refuses to return it and they become lifelong enemies. There’s another that’s very similar to one that I grew up with, about a boy who cries wolf.
Other stories are about the reality of escaping from war, or life in a refugee camp. “The Beard” tells the story of a man who hides from a militia by dressing as a woman. “Who am I?” talks about the inner conflict of a man growing up in one country and speaking its language, and wearing the “Kenyan” scars of vaccination, but being culturally and ethnically part of another country.
The writing of the stories has been an interesting process. It’s been over 20 years since the Somali language was formally taught in schools, and since then the language has changed. What is seen by the older generation as correct Somali is seen as old fashioned by the younger generation, many of whom have grown up in camps or in Nairobi, as out of touch. Somali as a language now has dialects not just in Somalia, Somaliland and Puntland, but also in Northern Kenya and Nairobi.
The young use a different vocabulary and have a different accent and as a result, spell words differently. Even the spelling of a common word can be controversial. The title of our first story was “The School Bag” and we got four different spellings of the word “boorsadii” meaning “bag” from four different translators.
We selected twenty stories, edited to an early grade reading level, recorded them with Somali speakers from Northern Kenya, and gave our team of illustrators photos from Dadaab to base their work on, and put them together in “Sheeko” – the first Somali reading app. With each story we added spelling and letter tracing activities to teach writing skills too. The app was loaded onto BRCK’s Kiokit – a safe box with 40 ruggedised tablets, wirelessly charged, with its own intranet of educational apps. And by November, we were back in Dadaab training trainers in community centres how to use it, and last month we got some photos back of how it’s being used in six community centres across Dadaab.
“It boosts attendance and enhances active participation in the class,” says Farah Abdi Iftiin a teacher in one community centre. The plan was to use the app once a week, but after the first week the trainers said they were using it twice a week, and two weeks later, Farah said they had classes running at the weekend as well. But anecdotes are not enough, we need scientific data, so a sample of students are taking reading tests before and after the pilot to measure impact.
We have been asked to scope out versions for other Somali dialects, and there’s interest in developing apps in South Sudanese languages for refugees in Kakuma and Northern Uganda too. That’s great news for us, because our goal is to make mother tongue literacy apps across Africa.
If you’d like to help eLimu make a literacy app in your language, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org