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The 826 National project makes an impression in Kenya

The author Dave Eggers's ideas of how to spread literacy and inspire children to tell their own stories have reached around the globe. We catch up with the 826 National project in Nairobi.
The author Dave Eggers launched his writing-focused project first in San Francisco in 2002.
The author Dave Eggers launched his writing-focused project first in San Francisco in 2002.

The hot African sun is shining generously over festival tents in a field filled with splendid statues. Emerging from one tent are beaming children, brandishing brightly coloured books, which they themselves have made in two hours.

They have been in a Publish Your Own Book workshop led by the admirable not-for-profit company 826 National, which is the brainchild of the acclaimed writer Dave Eggers (the author of Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and more recently, Zeitoun) and is devoted to improving the reading, writing and literacy skills of underprivileged youth.

First founded in San Francisco, so popular was the initiative that it spread to cities throughout the United States and 20,000 children now have access to free sessions. A core philosophy of the project is to have "field trips" and special projects, taking skills beyond immediate locality - and now we are many thousands of miles away from San Francisco, at the Storymoja Hay Festival, in the heart of Nairobi.

The concept is indeed gathering a more global reach and has most recently inspired a fantastic version in London, the Ministry of Stories, led by the bestselling author Nick Hornby.

Modelling itself on 826 National, it has Dave Eggers's blessing and a host of illustrious advisers, including Zadie Smith and Roddy Doyle, who himself founded the 826-inspired project Fighting Words, in Dublin.

An underpinning belief of the Ministry of Stories is that "writing has the power to unleash young people's extraordinary imaginations and, in doing so, to build confidence and self-respect". The initiative has gained support not only from the people but from politicians, with Prime Minister David Cameron hosting a party for Hornby and the co-founders.

These projects are no dry academic affair: even the buildings in which they are housed display the architecture of the imagination: the San Francisco headquarters, which resembles the hull of a ship, is a "pirate supply store". And the London shop is monster-themed.

Whether pirates or monsters, inside them young people can be found writing stories, workshopping, being mentored. Indeed, "behind the shelves of monster supplies, there's an entrance to another secret place", says the Ministry of Stories.

So what exactly are the special ingredients of this new wave of popular literary projects sweeping through the world? I had the opportunity to get beneath the skin of this "movement", and enter the "secret place" of the imagination in action, witnessing the wonderful 826 National workshops over several days in October at the prestigious Storymoja Hay Festival, and speaking to workshop attendees and organisers.

What unites these projects over the miles is the passion for story-telling, and imparting the ability to tell stories to the younger generation the world over. Projects designed by 826 National explore the possibilities of storytelling in an ambitious range of forms, from chapbooks and magazines to student newspapers and books.

There are also special projects, such as two delightful books of letters to President Obama and to First Lady Michelle Obama that have caused a stir stateside. Similarly, the Ministry of Stories states that "all forms of writing are valid - from song lyrics to play scripts, screenplays to journalism, blogging to games, poems to graphic novels. The best results are achieved by making writing seriously playful."

When the talented founder of Kenya's dynamic Storymoja publishers, Muthoni Garland - herself a Caine Prize-nominated writer - first read about 826 National projects, including the bookmaking project, she was "salivating". After all, the principle of "Storymoja" is "Many Stories. One World", and among its inspired projects, it hosts the splendid annual Storymoja Hay Festival, which partners with the Hay Festival.

This year, audiences that included many schoolchildren had access to phenomenal performances by a host of local and international writers, including Benjamin Zephaniah.

"The bookmaking sessions seemed absolutely perfect as a tool to empower youngsters to exercise their imaginations to produce tangible work. And it demystified the 'scary' publishing process," says Garland. Eggers was "wonderfully receptive" to their invitation and dispatched an "amazing representative", the enthusiastic operations manager Ryan Lewis to lead the storytelling and bookmaking programme and teach the Storymoja team, led by Aleya, about how to implement the bookmaking initiative.

The love of stories is indeed a guiding philosophy, whether taught by Hornby in Hoxton, or Eggers in the US, or Lewis in Nairobi. The workshops I witnessed explored the very heart of what makes a story.

And the children were excited to explore the nuts and bolts of storytelling - character, plot, setting - and dreamt up worlds by turns wonderful and terrifying, imbuing their characters with hopes and fears, tracing out their trajectories. With the Hay Festival wristband upon arms busily sketching out stories, children imagined riding to school on dinosaurs, and superheroes saving the planet.

"Our students are craving high-energy, relevant and compelling learning opportunities. Teachers are also always looking for unique writing projects for their students," explains Lewis.

How was it possible to put this project in action not in a purpose-designed building in the US, but in a tent in a field in Kenya? The main challenge of running the project in Nairobi was co-ordinating logistics, explains Lewis.

The storytelling and bookmaking programme is usually run in centres equipped with photocopiers, computers, projectors and binding machines to help produce beautiful books for the students to take home. "Figuring out how to still offer the high quality of the final product that students deserve, while working out of a tent classroom in a field, required some creative adaptation," Lewis says.

The workshops proved immensely successful, reaching more than 100 students between the ages of eight and 12.

"Once the project was underway, it ran incredibly close to the version we do all the time in the US. We encourage the students to get as creative as possible, and this energy organically fuels the spirit and fun nature of the programme," Lewis says. "Each session was a high-energy and dynamic two hours of writing," with students he found to be intelligent, excited, involved and eventually overjoyed to receive the books they had written.

It is crucial, explains Garland, that young people have access to such intellectually stimulating initiatives at an early age. "The health of the mind - the ability to create and interrogate ideas - is critical for our economic growth and social development," she says. "Yet, educational emphasis in East Africa and many other parts of the world is still weighted towards cramming static facts to pass exams rather than on nurturing the capacity to think.

"In a region where many sleep hungry, and live in poor, hostile environments, it is tempting to consider the nurturing of 'thinking' as less of a priority. But achieving meaningful change of our difficult circumstances can only happen if we nurture the capacity to develop and implement the solutions ourselves".

Storymoja is visiting schools across the country to sign them up for Publish Your Own Book sessions as part of a larger "reading revolution" campaign. "The highlight of the campaign will be a world record attempt to overturn the self-defeating, widely held perception that Africans do not read", says Garland.

The aim is to gather the largest number of people who will read aloud simultaneously at one location, and also encourage donations of books to a newly built public library in Nairobi. With Kenyan National Library Services a key partner, they are seeking other partners to make this possible.

I caught up with Michael Onsando, a 20-year-old student at the University of Nairobi and an aspiring writer, who interns at Storymoja and volunteered with 826 National book-making. "Working with the children was amazing," he says. "The fact that they still see the best of the world that we ourselves have long failed to see was an eye-opener. I think it was great for the kids and helped with self-esteem."

According to 826 National, "connecting inner-city students with these creative and generous mentors allows students to dream and achieve on a grand scale." And indeed, whether this inner city is San Francisco, London or Nairobi, the dreams of the students are being rendered into colourful display.

Inside the tent in Nairobi, children sketched out their dreams with charcoal pencil, felt-tip pen and considerable talent. The stories, reflecting ideas as bright as the paper written on, are sure to linger on long after the festival.

Updated: January 4, 2011 04:00 AM

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