Benin Storytellers is part of a larger project called Books that Bind which has been created by Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs L3C and the Three Sisters Education Fund (TSEF). TSEF provides tutoring scholarships to underserved students in Benin, West Africa. MSU students taking ANP 436, Globalization and Justice, with Dr. Marcy Hessling O’Neil are working alongside TSEF to create bi-lingual storybooks. We are using technology such as WhatsApp, Google Drive, WordPress, and Bloom Software to become immersed in a civic engagement project with co-creators 5500 miles away.
Many children living in communities served by TSEF attend schools that do not have libraries, and those that do are poorly stocked. In addition, the books are rarely in the languages spoken in the home. The absence of books in a home is often cited as a factor in low reading levels and difficulties reaching literacy (Gove and Cvelich 2010). What may be even more of a benefit, however, is the practice of creating books together with the parents. Non-literate adults are a marginalized group that is often left behind in large global initiatives such as Education for All (EFA) which has focused on primary school attendance. In this storytelling project the parents are essential to the creation of the books as it is their own stories that are being written. This project also addresses the paucity of books written in local languages with culturally relevant themes.
Upon completion of the YEP project, Sandrine and Marcy created Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs L3C (TS) which was established in the US in 2014 as a social entrepreneurship to fund tutoring though the sale of artisanal goods made in Benin. TSEF is currently registered as an NGO in Benin and is staffed by two anthropologists and four tutors. While education is technically free in Benin, there are still costs associated with sending children to school, including uniforms, school supplies, and “contributions” to help pay the teachers. During the first academic year of the program TSEF noted that for some families the opportunity cost was too great. In essence, the amount of time spent on tutoring was not income-generating and thus the children who had the greatest need were those who could not benefit from the program.
In June of 2016 Marcy and Sandrine arranged a field trip for all TSEF families, tutors, and administrators to the library at the US Embassy in Cotonou. This was the first time that the students and families had been in a library, as none of the primary schools that the students attended have these facilities. The parents were just as eager to see the library as the children, and it was as a result of that trip that TSEF began the “Books that Bind” project as a potential to keep the most vulnerable children in school. Students who participate in the project are paid a nominal sum (equal to 125% of what they would typically earn out selling during the same period) to work on a book project with a parent or guardian. Parents are telling stories to their children, who are in turn learning how to write their mother language and translate it into French. The end result of the project will be bilingual books with culturally appropriate content that can be printed locally and distributed to the families and the schools that the children attend. The project has already begun and is being funded solely through the sale of artisanal goods and donations from the communities in the US and Benin.