Diasporian News of 2013-12-23

The Guardian and Observer Christmas appeal 2013: Worldreader

Seven-year-old Enoch wants to be a good student, but circumstances have not been on his side. At his home in Suhum, a ramshackle town in the dewy hills of Ghana's green and mountainous eastern region, straggly wires protrude from the empty shell where electrical sockets should be. The landlord decided halfway through building their two-bedroom home that he did not want to pay to complete the wiring and so Enoch, his parents and his elder sister have no lights at home.

Enoch sleeps on a grubby mattress on the floor by the front door. He has no desk, so he does his homework sitting on a faded armchair, crammed in beside his mother's basket of bread, hot chocolate sachets and oats – items she prepares and sells by the roadside.

"It would be better if we had lights at home," says Enoch, who wears worn plimsoll hi-tops, his yellow school shirt emblazoned with his primary school's logo, which bears the words: "Knowledge is power." It's a motto Enoch's parents understand, even though neither of them can read or write and they don't own a single book.

Enoch, however, has 140 books, which he can read even in the dark on a Kindle e-reader he was given at school. Described by his teachers as particularly bright, Enoch likes the Ghanaian stories – in the local Tiwi language as well as in English – but his favourite book is the dictionary. He scrolls expertly through the neatly cased Kindle, searching for the alphabet to read aloud. Around him other children in stream C at Suhum primary, one of three government schools in the same, gently sloping compound, are sitting in the shade during their morning break, eating bread and oranges and playing ampe, a traditional Ghanaian game of clapping and jumping.

"I like reading this because it teaches me new words and numbers," Enoch says. "I want to be a pilot when I grow up and fly planes."

Suhum primary school is a beneficiary of a project run by the charity Worldreader, whose iRead 2 programme is distributing Kindles to children in nine African countries. The parents make huge sacrifices to send their children to school but, if it wasn't for the project, they would still struggle to master literacy. More than 12,000 students and their families have so far benefited from the more than 2,000 titles available on the Kindles, in English and local languages.

The need for outside intervention at Suhum is clear. Despite being a model school, with good attendance rates and disciplined children and staff, the school has been beset by a lack of funding and chronic shortages of essential materials. "The government has not been providing us with enough books; it is a very serious problem," said Patrick Kyere-Koranteng, 30, an English teacher at the school. "The children are many, and sharing the few books we have was difficult. That affected their academic performance. And without textbooks it is very difficult to do a good job as a teacher."

"When the children share textbooks, it means they can't take the book home. Some of them don't have any books in their house – their parents can't afford to buy books and they are illiterate themselves," said Cynthia Yeboah, the headteacher, who wears a charcoal skirt suit and neat black braids in her hair. "But now that the children have e-readers, their reading has improved considerably. I would say that 90% of the children have cultivated a culture of reading. When you go to the class, they are reading. When they are on break, they are reading.

"It's not just reading – their handwriting has improved; you can see the difference," added Yeboah. "They have acquired IT skills from familiarity with the readers."

Worldreader, which was founded by former Amazon executive David Risher, is leapfrogging Ghanaian children over a generation of technology by investing in the initial cost of Kindles, thereby making hundreds of texts – until now lacking in numbers or altogether unavailable in Ghanaian schools – available at low cost.

The charity has been working with local publishers to digitise their catalogues so that key texts as well as stories in English and local languages are put on to Kindles that the children can read in class and in their own time. "We do all the digitisation of storybooks, and the textbooks that they use in their classrooms," said Beatrice Ani-Asamoah of Worldreader in Ghana. "It's a huge amount of work, but worthwhile. Digitising textbooks is also a way of getting teachers to use the Kindles in the classroom. We want teachers to emulate the behaviour so that it has a long-lasting effect on the way they teach."

Providing schoolchildren with Kindles has also had some unintended positive effects. Teachers at Suhum said that it used to be difficult to get parents involved.

"In the past we have struggled to engage parents with their children's education," said Kofi Sem Michael, 27, a teacher at the school. "We would call them to discuss something concerning the student's welfare and would be too intimidated because they can't read and write themselves. Or they would be too busy working – a lot of them are traders; they work day and night and when the children get home from school they don't even see them."

"Many of the parents were afraid of the e-readers at first," said Yeboah. "But after we educated them and had the children teach them how to use them, some of the parents have really been transformed. That has boosted the confidence of the children. They always want to take it home to read because they have support from their siblings and parents."

"There is a whole generation which is very intimidated by technology, but through this project their whole mentality is changing dramatically," said Ani-Asamoah.

Worldreader has been active at Suhum primary for seven months, with funding from the US government programme, USAid, World Vision and AusAid. The charity has developed a "program in a box" package that it sells to the private sector to generate revenue and is hoping to extend to more schools.

"I don't want my children to end up like me, not able to read and write," said Soloman Akotuan, Enoch's father. "But now that I see Enoch reading on his own all the time, I know that he won't."