Thursday, July 16, 2015

Linguistic imbalance in book donations to Africa

“When you give someone a book, you don’t give him just paper, ink, and glue. You give him the possibility of a whole new life.” - Christopher Morley (American author and publisher)

“Sadly there are still those people who believe that any book is better than no book, so irrelevant and unusable materials from the West are shipped over, at no small cost.” - Sara Harrity MBE (former director, Book Aid International)

Giving books and other reading materials to those who do not otherwise have access to them is seen as a good thing, and it generally is, apart donation practices that have been widely criticized as "book dumping." However, there is also an inherent asymmetry in the kind of reading material generally going from the West to Africa, in that most of it is in Europhone languages, with little or none in the first languages of the children and communities who receive them. And this linguistic imbalance, aside from sometimes being a factor in unusability of materials (when people can't read the language in which they are written), certainly carries with it unintended messages about the lower value of first languages and local cultures relative to those of the donated materials.

At least some book donation programs in Africa have taken steps to address this imbalance by including materials in African languages, and among these, projects providing e-books and other digital texts have the easier road.

Book donations to Africa: What's involved?

A 2014 article based on a study in Madagascar ("What 'new' book donation practices can meet the needs of young African readers in libraries?") has a useful description of book donations to Africa:
"Donations can be books collected from libraries, schools, individuals or associations abroad. They can be new books, recuperated book pulps or second-hand books, mainly religious books, textbooks, literature, and some academic and professional books. It [sic] can also be books bought or published by international organisations and freely redistributed as part of their education programme.
"Donations can also be acquisitions of local books through purchases in a bookshop or the allocation of a budget to an associative structure towards acquiring books published locally."
In this mix, clearly the weight of foreign books in Europhone languages (in which most reading and instructional materials are published) is literally and figuratively much greater. For instance, the US non-profit Books for Africa has shipped over 30 million books in hundreds of containers to Africa. But a search of their site yields no mention of books in languages other than in English or French. Another American NGO, African Library Project, also focuses on English language materials but also asks for donations to help purchase "native language" books.

The British non-profit Book Aid International also seems to focus on English language materials to Africa, but also has included some locally produced books in African languages. Another British NGO, Books2Africa International has a helpful online chat feature and an searchable database of titles they ship to Africa, but I learned that the books they send are mostly English along with French, Spanish, German, and some Arabic (though they have future plans for African language titles, and support African authors).

South African children reading story books in African languages
(photo from via article in

Acquisition of locally published materials, which would in most cases be the main way to include materials in African languages, is limited by the amount and type of publications produced in the recipient countries. This is another key dimension to consider in the larger picture of reading and instruction materials in Africa, which in turn is a function of the nexus of limitations in resources for publishing in Africa, first-language literacy, incentives for authors writing in African languages, etc.

Even when locally published materials are included among those distributed, another potential issue is comparisons of quality of foreign books from the West in Europhone languages with locally produced books in African languages. In many African countries, at least as far as I am aware, materials in African languages are often printed on cheaper paper with a rougher presentation. What sort of message does disparity in quality of local and international books give to recipients of book donations?

That said, there are quality books published in Africa, as well as by some specialized publishers outside of the continent (this is a topic I hope to return to).

Can digital books redress the linguistic imbalance?

Some initiatives to provide e-books and other digital reading materials to students in Africa have at least announced their intention to include books in the African languages of the recipients.

For example, the Library for All project, which recently announced an initiative in Rwanda with Bloomberg Philanthropies and the Imbuto Foundation, has indicated it will include books in  Kinyarwanda, the first language of virtually all Rwandans. A post about the initiative elaborates on plans (apparently pending funding):
"We will add titles in English, French, Creole, Spanish and Lingala to our Haitian and Congolese Libraries, while also building our Rwandan collection of Kinyarwanda titles. Specifically, we will license an additional 200 books for the Library and translate 30 new books into local languages."
The Worldreader program boasts over 27,000 e-books in 43 languages, including the following African languages (links are to Wikipedia pages about the languages): "Adamawa" (meaning a variety of the Fula language spoken in an area centered on northern Cameroon), Afrikaans, Akan (they list the three old literary standards separately as Akuapem-Twi, Fante, and "Twi-Akan"); Amharic; Chichewa/Nyanja (they list the two names for this language separately); Dholuo; Ekegusii; Ewe; Gikuyu; Giriama (a Mijikenda language; also listed as Kigiriama in their list); Hausa; Igbo; Kamba; Kiembu; Kinyarwanda; Luganda; Luhyia; Lulogooli; Ndebele (not clear whether this is northern or southern Ndebele); Sesotho; Setswana; Shona; Swahili; Tetela; Xhosa; Yoruba; and Zulu. This is an impressive list, but I found no figures on how many titles for each language.

In addition to formal ebook projects, there are also some websites offering some reading material in African languages (other than news sites - another topic), such as that of the Ghanaian NGO, Kasahorow.

Altogether, these are significant beginnings at leveraging the potential of electronic digital technology to add African language titles among the books and other reading materials that African students and adults have access to.

Digital technology has always had this potential for languages that have a relatively short written tradition. The costs of bringing out e-books or other text content on the internet is a lot less, of course, than those incurred in printing, binding, storing and shipping physical books. Combined with the ability to access such reading material on mobile devices (which are widely used in Africa) and dedicated devices (provided by some programs), this offers the possibility to at least partially offset the linguistic imbalance discussed above. However, resources to create (or translate) e-books, favorable governmental and donor policies, and support for authors and translators are still needed.

See also the follow-on post, More on book donations to Africa.


Chris Bradshaw said...

Thank you, Don, for this blog post that lays out some of the issues around book donations to Africa. We are also concerned about the issues you name. Our board has always included Returned Peace Corps Volunteers and others who have worked in Africa developing libraries and have first hand experience with what types of books are useful and read.

At the African Library Project (ALP), our vision is for children and adults throughout Africa to have easy access to books that are engaging, relevant, and in all the languages they speak. As our contribution to this larger goal, we start and improve small libraries in Anglophone countries by sending donated books in English. We also purchase some books by local authors and illustrators and we support the Golden Baobab Prize to encourage the publication of children’s books by African authors. By sending high quality books in English at the appropriate reading level, we make it possible for schools to spend their limited resources on textbooks, books in their local languages, or any other books they would like. We hear from our partners (governmental and non-governmental organizations) that schools desperately need fiction and non-fiction in English since instruction and examinations to enter secondary school are in English.

I agree with your main point that there is a need for and lack of books in African languages. But you seem to conclude that we have to choose between physical books in European languages and e-books in African languages. Several good ngo’s are working to produce and distribute physical books in African languages (eg., Room to Read, Biblionef, Ethiopia Reads) and governments and parastatals are also working on this. For example, the Malawi Institute of Education recently produced an excellent series of early readers in Chichewa and English.

While e-books may be the future, they are not a good solution at present for many children and adults in Africa. Families in rural areas have a hard time getting enough electricity to keep mobile phones charged and are not likely to give them to children to read for extended periods. E-readers have problems with maintenance over the long term.

We are looking for volunteers in the US and Canada to collect 1,000 books and about $500 to start a library in Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Africa, or Swaziland, so I encourage those who care about access to books to sign up to do a book drive.

Don said...

Thanks Chris, I appreciate your long and substantive comments. This is helpful to me personally and hopefully also to other readers in providing more info on how the ALP works.

One clarification - I did emphasize digital materials, based in part on having heard/read much over the years about the challenges (mainly cost) in producing printed books and instructional materials in African languages. Physical books and printed materials have many advantages, including not being dependent on devices or power (though solar charging devices should increasingly help resolve the latter). Certainly there are some good specific efforts such as you mention to produce and distribute books in first languages, but overall they seem limited in comparison to what is going to Africa in Europhone languages (which is not to suggest to reduce relevant materials in the latter, but to ask how African language materials can be a greater proportion).

I consider digital materials to also include what can be posted on the internet in any language for printing closer to the place of use. This approach won't produce high quality books, but could be useful for texts to read or instructional aids for teachers in mother tongue based/multilingual education (MTB/MLE) curricula, which foreign donations generally help only part of (the English or French parts, for example).

When you seek volunteers and materials for libraries such as you mention for Botswana, Ghana, Lesotho, Malawi, Sierra Leone, South Africa, or Swaziland, is it possible to highlight the need for good materials in the first languages of those countries? Though book drives in the US are not likely to bring in much in diverse African languages, mentioning the issue is a start. Imagine growing up and going to school but never seeing a book in the language(s) used at home and in the community (or in many cases by hundreds of thousands or millions of compatriots)?