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The Challenges of Teaching Literacy Skills to Somali Refugees in Dadaab

By Guest Writer on January 22, 2020

dadaab educational technology

In 2017, Dadaab Refugee Camp was the sixth biggest city in Kenya, with a population of 250,000. With peace returning to Somalia, organisations like the Norwegian Refugee Council started to run vocational training to give refugee youth skills to return and build their country.

It turned out not to be that easy – even the traditional set of courses like tailoring, carpentry and entrepreneurship required literacy and numeracy skills that young people who had grown up for the last twenty years in Dadaab just didn’t have.

They needed a quick literacy course that could work in an informal setting without teachers. We at eLimu had already built literacy apps in four languages for schools and parents in East Africa. But they were full of stories and exercises about children wanting to play football, or losing a pen, or going to a market. How could we create stories that would be meaningful to adults who had missed out on school?

Challenges of Creating Content in Dadaab

We realised we had to create new educational content for Dadaab, and so we decided to run workshops there, asking people what stories they told each other. They told us folklore and stories that reminded me of the stories I grew up with.

One story is about a crocodile who lends a fox his tongue, and when the fox refuses to return it and they become lifelong enemies. Another one that’s probably familiar to you is about a boy who cried wolf.

But other stories were completely unlike anything I had heard before, stories about escaping from war, or everyday life in a refugee camp.

  • “The Beard” tells the story of a man who hides from a Somali militia by dressing as a woman.
  • “Who am I?” talks about the inner conflict of a man who has grown up in Kenya, speaks Swahili, and wears the “Kenyan” scar of vaccination on his arm, yet his family, culture and ethnicity are Somali.

When it came to writing the stories, we faced a new problem all together. It’s been over 20 years since the Somali language was taught formally in schools, and since then the language has changed.

What is seen by the older generation as correct Somali, is seen as out of touch by the youth who grew up in camps or Nairobi. Somali as a language has dialects not just in Somalia, Somaliland, and Puntland, but also in Northern Kenya and Nairobi.

Now every conversation about language has political weight: whose dialect will be made “official” Somali?

Even the spelling of a common word can be controversial. The title of our first story was “The School Bag” and when we sent it to four different translators, we got four different spellings of the word Somali word for “bag”. The only solution was to get the translators and stakeholders together in a room and debate the correct spelling of every word.

Success in Deploying Content in Dadaab

We wrote twenty stories, recorded them with Somali speakers from the camp, and gave our team of illustrators photos from Dadaab to base their work on. We put them together in “Sheeko” – the first Somali reading app, adding spelling and letter tracing activities 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.

We delivered the tablets to the community centres, and showed trainers how to use the app, but on the way back to Nairobi we began wondering how learners would relate to the stories, and use the app.

A few weeks later, NRC told us that not only had attendance in literacy classes had gone up, but classes were much more active. The initial plan was to use the app once a week, but after the first month the trainers said they were using it twice a week, and two weeks later, one centre said they were running classes at the weekend as well.

Early on some expected funding didn’t come through, and even though some of the trainers we had worked with left the project, there was no funding to return for further training. But even so, the results have been remarkable. A year on, an independent study has shown 4X improvement in Somali reading fluency in learners using our apps versus those in traditional literacy camp.

By Sam Rich, CEO at eLimu

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5 Comments to “The Challenges of Teaching Literacy Skills to Somali Refugees in Dadaab”

  1. Cavin Mugarura says:

    Just for emphasis it was the first somali reading app, and even if it was [which it wasn’t], it doesn’t really add any value in being the first, second or third.

  2. Arlene Allen says:

    The Alliance for Africa’s Orphanages, Inc. (AFAO) is a 501(c)(3) US non-profit organization, which began in December 2017. Our Mission is to create partnerships in order to fulfill our Mission of Educating, Professionalizing and Empowering needy orphanages in rural areas and slums.

    We are creating a new collaborative initiative, particularly focused on capacity building activities to empower orphaned young people who are “aging out” of their residential facilities.

    Like you, it has been difficult to locate appropriate online materials who’s subject matter relates to the experiences of people who live in primitive conditions. I feel ashamed to foist whats currently available on them.

    Would you please help us recreate the above-referenced initiative (in Kenya and Uganda, so far), and participate on our online TRANSFORMATIVE ACTION discussion group?

    The initiative will be expanded to the other African countries, as AFAO is enabled.

  3. Omar Bakari says:

    Would love to know the outcome of the content that you did develop.

  4. Omar Bakari says:

    Would love to know the outcome of the content that you did develop.

  5. Arlene Allen says:

    We are only sharing what we find online, at this point, just to get something out there to help them.