‘Mother tongue’ translation project elevates literacy for Uganda’s children
Originally posted at: https://www.ugandapartners.org/2018/10/mother-tongue-translation-project-elevates-literacy-for-ugandas-children/
Uganda Christian University faculty member’s book, which is published in 30 languages
By Patty-Huston Holm
What if after years of affectionately calling the woman who gave birth to you by the name “mother,” you are told she had to be addressed as “maama wange?” At the same time, your mother’s brother that you grew up knowing as “uncle” is now “kojja wange.”
The words you heard and spoke with emotional attachment in your western, predominately English-speaking country since birth takes a back seat to a Ugandan tribal language called Luganda. Now, everything you read and say is no longer in English, but in Luganda.
That, according to Cornelius Wambi Gulere, senior lecturer in literature, at UgandaChristian University (UCU), is similar to what happens with Ugandan children born into tribes speaking more than 65 different languages and dialects before going to schools where English is spoken and read. Not only do the children drift from the native language but also pull away from the feelings associated with those first words, the desire to be creative when putting words together and the excitement for reading and writing.
Project possible because of UCU Partners
The UCU Department of Languages and Literature project of creative writing, translation and publishing for children strives to change that – one book at a time. With most of the financial backing from an anonymous donor through UCU Partners, English stories with illustrations are being translated and published into the “mother tongue.” From April to October of 2018, students and staff members at UCU and Uganda’s Kyambogo University had translated 1,000 stories into around a dozen languages. Among the languages in the project are Ateso, Acholi, Kumam, Rukhonzo, Lusoga, Luganda, Kiswahili, Rufumbira, Kinyarwanda, Runyankore-Rukiga, and Runyoro-Rutooro.
Peer review to assure literacy quality is part of the process. In addition to Cornelius, others helping with that review are Manuel Muranga, Monica Ntege, Constance Tukawasibwe and Peter Mugume, among others.
A western humanitarian strategy has been to increase literacy in underdeveloped countries by donating books in English – an appreciated action especially in a country like Uganda where the government does not provide financial support for libraries. The less recognized but effective approach to fighting illiteracy, however, is to reinforce reading through the words children hear first.
“When reading is familiar, it is easier and more enjoyable,” said Dr. Cornelius, who has had his original children’s book, “A Very Tall Man,” published in 30 languages. “Plus, literacy increases with the more languages you can read.”
Words + illustrations = Creativity
And the value of illustrations with stories should not be overlooked.
“Pictures often carry more messages,” he said. “Ask a child to tell his own story by looking at the pictures, and watch something amazing happen. The illustrations increase creativity and lifelong enjoyment with books.”
For the Department of Languages and Literature in the UCU Education and Arts Faculty, the children’s literature project has benefits beyond serving Uganda’s children. It offered opportunities for interdisciplinary and off-campus collaboration. Translators include UCU’s own students and staff – undergraduates from Journalism and Media studies and the librarian at the Mukono campus, for example – and students at Kyambogo University in Kampala. Support also comes from the Uganda Community Libraries Association, local community families and the free on-line children’s Web sites of Story Weaver and African Storybook. Besides UCU Partners, other literacy support has come from Hewlett and Neil Butcher Associates.
“I started learning English when I was 6 or 7,” second-year journalism/media studies student Buryo Emmanuel Noble recalled. “I wanted to keep speaking my native language, but it was hard because I was in boarding school.”
Buryo was one of the project translators, doing the work from English to Runyankore-Rukiga without charge because he not only enjoyed doing it but felt it would help young children from his Kiruhura home in western Uganda. He smiled as he recalled the story he translated. It was about a sheep who wanted to leave the city and get back to his country home.
Another UCU student translator, Babirye Dinnah, also in journalism/media studies, translated from English to Luganda a story about a hare and hyena. The lessons were about trust, honesty and laziness. Her first career goal is to be a news anchor, but after the project, she realizes that with her knowledge of five languages, she might be able to get a job as a translator after obtaining her bachelor’s degree.
“It’s very important for children to know their local language to interact with family and know about their family history,” she said.
According to Cornelius, the next step beyond the initially funded translation is to have a doctoral studies program focused on children’s literature.
One of UCU’s core values is service. Faculty and students seek to live this out by connecting what they are teaching and learning in the classroom to the broader society, meeting the needs of Ugandans who may never set foot on the University campus. If you are interested in supporting projects like this one in Uganda, contact Mark Bartels, UCU Partners’ Executive Director, at firstname.lastname@example.org.