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Save the Children: Promoting digital reading in Rwanda

By Catherine Uwimana, Book Development and Use Technical Specialist

Every day, children and adults from all corners of Burera visit the Sunzu Yacu Community Library, some of them having travelled two hours or more.  

Pacifique, seven, is one of the children who routinely use the library. He first visited the little gem in Nkenke at three years old with his mother. Now a student in Primary 3, he is a regular patron.

‘I love coming to Sunzu Yacu because I read many things, and I learn many languages, and I do better at school. I love the stories I read,’ said Pacifique. 

Pacifique knew if he wanted to read, he could find books at school or at Sunzu Yacu. When Covid-19 hit, Pacifique had to stay at home. Schools closed, public gatherings were restricted, and libraries ceased lending print materials. Pacifique lost all access to books. 

Bringing digital reading to children

The project allowed Save the Children to pilot a digital reading activity that would inform future programming with best practices in promoting remote and accessible literacy and reading for children in rural or under resourced communities, even when they cannot attend schools and visit community libraries.Thanks to the APIF, Save the Children has been implementing Africa Digital Reading and eBook Solutions, an eight-month project to boost childhood literacy using digital reading resources. The project uses a multi-stakeholder approach working with eight community libraries across five districts, eight community radio stations, publishers, children, parents, and the Ministry of Education’s Kigali Public Library. Pacifique reading

Through this project, children like Pacifique used tablets and radios to enjoy books and explore other ways to interact with stories. In the case of Sunzu Yacu Community Library, young readers had a chance to use tablets to read children’s books in a language they speak and understand, Kinyarwanda.

Sunzu Yacu librarian Apollinaire said:It was the first time these children and most of the parents had used tablets. You can imagine their excitement when not only did they get to know how to use a new type of device but also to use it for reading and listening to stories in Kinyarwanda.

Apollinaire said the library had limited tablets and other devices with reading materials. The problem is we only had two, and the content was in English and other foreign languages, so young children and parents who don’t have a higher education level can’t use them in a way that they can enjoy.’

With the Africa Digital Reading and eBook Solutions project, children were able to use tablets to read and listen to audiobooks. However, the project’s benefits go beyond reading.

Digital reading for community learning and empowerment

MobileThe APIF-funded project's objective in Rwanda was to digitize and distribute Kinyarwanda-language children’s books from local publishers and air them at eight community libraries. Then, the project would purchase a few print titles of these books for community libraries to be distributed together with the tablets where 100 eBooks and 50 audiobooks were uploaded by the project staff. The project also trained the eight community librarians on how to use such provisions effectively for girls and boys with or without disabilities.

When the project delivered the materials to community libraries such as Sunzu Yacu, some asked to be included in the eBook-making activity and allow children to participate. That is how Justine, nine, read the first audiobook to be aired on Energy Radio, a private local radio station covering northern Rwanda. When Justine recorded Manzi azi kubara, published by SBD with the project and Sunzu Yacu teams, she did not expect it to change her life. When she woke up after the book was aired on the radio, Justine was a local celebrity in her neighborhood.

All children were approaching her and wanted to be like her. Suddenly, we had flocks of children visiting the library asking to read books and get aired on the radio too. We wish we had more books for them to read. But since then, the book [Manzi azi kubara] became a favorite, along with two other titles that children discovered on the tablets and in print.’

The other favorite titles are Munyu na Sukari, published by Perdua Publishers, and Amazi from Ubuntu Publishers. Apollinaire said many children and parents started visiting the library because of the books they heard on the radio and the fact that their children had read the books.

She added: Not only do they enjoy the stories on the radio, but they also appreciated that their peers read the books. And for parents, they were proud to have their children on the radio. Other parents wanted their children to speak on the radio too.

In Apollinaire’s view, the more children and parents that visit the library, the more opportunity to expose them to other library activities such as entertainment, traditional dance, debate, and so forth.

At the weekend, we get more than 100 children visiting, and they all want to use the tablets. We need more devices, more funds to buy radio airtime, and more books in Kinyarwanda, in print and digital formats. Now we are mobilizing funds to expand the library, we are constructing new branches in the other two districts.’

Meanwhile, when children like Pacifique and Justine come to the library, they go straight to the Kinyarwanda book collection or grab a tablet to read with friends. This prompted Sunzu Yacu to extend the project’s target group to include parents. Most parents live from agriculture and have limited exposure to new technology. With the APIF grant, Sunzu Yacu trained parents on using and properly managing tablets. Sometimes they let children and parents borrow a tablet for home use. In addition, Sunzu Yacu created a WhatsApp group where they launched an initiative called Love Reading to share eBooks and audiobooks in Kinyarwanda, mostly the children’s books that the project shared. Then, Appolinaire asks the parents to read the books with the children. Every Sunday, one parent will bring their child to present and discuss the book with the other parents.

‘We hope we will have greater access to Kinyarwanda books as we get more library users. When they participate and they see books that they can read and are relevant to their needs, then it becomes easy to introduce them to other themes and activities.’

Still some way to go

Appolinaire acknowledges that boys usually compete to use the tablets, while girls lean more towards print books. His team noticed that girls did not use the tablets frequently for fear of breaking them and being punished. So Appolinaire and his team started holding back the tablets and giving them to girls when they were alone.

He and his team also knew that children with disabilities visiting the library must feel secure and treated equally in accessing such materials and content. Save the Children will continue to explore the complex factors affecting digital readership in children, including gender and disability.

Library interiorAppolinaire and Pacifique’s mother have both said that besides needing more digital devices to serve more readers, the main challenge they faced was the lack of Kinyarwanda books.

Appolinaire also said that community librarians want to get connected to local publishers and learn about new titles. He suggested that publishers should consider community librarians as important collaborators since they can help them understand what children love in books and support them in their market research.

Most of the community libraries working with the Africa Digital Reading and eBook Solutions project have the same passion as Sunzu Yacu. Yet, some libraries did not achieve as much. Bertrand, the project officer who works with community libraries, said that a few community libraries underperformed because they felt a lack of support from their communities and local authorities.

Volunteer librarians in settings that do not value reading and libraries do not use the devices. Although children are excited to use them, it is difficult when the librarian is not present and does not have support.’

The APIF-funded Africa Digital Reading and eBook Solutions project works closely with the Ministry of Education and Kigali Public Library to complement Save the Children’s advocacy for the promotion and expansion of community libraries. The goal is to increase access to reading and learning for girls and boys with or without disabilities, parents, leaders, and more through digital solutions. Gradually, there will be more reading opportunities for Pacifique, Justine and other children at community libraries.