A soap opera is changing women's lives in Ghana with information about family planning

Lessons in health and farming embedded in the storylines make mothers and daughters better informed and better off

Alistair Dawber
Sunday 02 August 2015 02:45
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Talking Books give residents of rural communities vital education in an entertaining way
Talking Books give residents of rural communities vital education in an entertaining way

Each Wednesday morning in the village of Suke in western Ghana, a group of 25 or so women sit down to listen to the latest episode of a monthly soap opera that carries subtle information about family planning. Next comes a programme about farming techniques, followed by an interview with a health expert.

The women are not listening to the radio, but instead a device known as a Talking Book, an object about the size of an alarm clock that serves as something of a cross between an ebook reader and a Ted Talk. The Talking Book is the inspiration of Cliff Schmidt, a former software developer at Microsoft who in 2007 founded Literacy Bridge, a charity that works to improve education levels in the developing world.

The Talking Book is a simple enough concept. Every month, programmes on health, family issues, sexual health, agricultural practices and business education are downloaded on to the device and distributed to communities in rural Ghana. The villagers listen to the programmes, and try to implement the lessons they learn. The devices are then handed back and updated, before being sent back into the villages with more programmes in their native languages.

“The Talking Book was created because there was no other device that served the needs in poor and rural areas that have low literacy skills and no other access to knowledge,” says Mr Schmidt.

A member of his staff at Literacy Bridge, Andy Bayor, says that the former software developer was inspired by a visit to Martin Luther King’s grave in Atlanta. “He says he felt he hadn’t done a lot in his life. He was working for Microsoft, doing a lot of good things, but comparing the life he had led with the life that Martin Luther King had led … he felt a conviction that he needed to do more for humanity.”

Mr Bayor met the newly inspired Mr Schmidt when he was working in an internet café. Mr Bayor asked his American visitor for help with his slow-running computer, but as well as being helping out with his IT problems, he was hired to help to run the Talking Book programme in Ghana.

“We didn’t know too much about agriculture or healthcare, but we partnered with other groups, and the Talking Book project continues to evolve,” he says.

Eight years later, and back in Suke, there is great enthusiasm for the Talking Book, which local women say has changed their fortunes, not just in learning about family health, but also lessons about commerce and prosperity.

The economy in Suke, like much of the rest of Ghana’s Upper West Region, is based on subsistence agriculture. What the Talking Book project has helped to do is change families’ smallholdings from areas that produce enough food to sustain the family into small businesses, producing enough food to be able to sell at markets. To help with the new found commercial acumen, there are also programmes on marketing and sales practices.

“There are so many things that I’ve found helpful,” says Badiru Abena, a mother in Suke who has been using the Talking Book for about a year. “The most helpful aspect is the farming. We now have ways of looking for more fertile ground and know what to plant there. My family is making some money now.”

Every month, programmes on health, family issues, sexual health, agricultural practices and business education are downloaded on to the device and distributed to communities in rural Ghana

A friend, Baala Ajara, agrees and says that the project has helped to unite the village. “There are lots of stories about children and their education, and about family health,” she says. “I think it’s very helpful for women in the communities.”

While the Talking Book is not specifically aimed at women, Literacy Bridge says that women and families in rural areas benefit exponentially from the project. Much of the content is also targeted at women.

“The content selection can be difficult,” says Mr Bayor. “We are trying to get across messages on gender. These issues can be very sensitive in some of the communities, so you have to find appropriate ways of presenting them.

“When we’re producing a programme on agriculture, we use agriculture experts. It can be presented in a number of ways – in an interview, for example, in an ‘ask the expert’ format. On gender issues, we tend to use a drama. It might be insensitive to lecture a community, but the dramas may present the message in a more subtle way, which gives the woman a fair hearing.”

It is proven that by targeting women in rural communities, the entire community benefits, according to Ann Cotton, the founder and president of Camfed, an organisation that sponsors poor but promising girls through 5,270 partner school in several African countries. Ann Cotton was awarded WISE Prize for education laureate in 2014. She says: “In the family pattern, men support boys and women support girls, and because women have far fewer financial resources there is less money to invest in girls.

“If women have an income, they will invest a higher proportion of that income in their children than men do. So you do get those societal returns very quickly.”

So far, 166 communities have been given Talking Books, receiving 150 hours of programmes each month. Each one of the Chinese-made devices costs $30 (£19) to manufacture. Convinced that it works, Literacy Bridge wants to produce them for a worldwide audience.

The charity is hoping to win this year’s World Innovation Summit for Education (WISE) award, a £12,800 prize handed out each year to leaders in educational development. It is funded by the Qatar Foundation – Qatar Foundation is actually a private, non-profit organization, chaired by Sheikha Moza bint Nasser. Ms Cotton was awarded Wise’s education laureate in 2014.

Work on The Talking Book project often throws up surprises. Parts of northern Ghana are a religious mix between Christians and a growing Muslim population. Tensions between the two are minimal, but on occasion the mix does present problems for Literacy Bridge, and not just in terms of the content on the Talking Book. “The Muslim population was not too keen on having a ‘cross’ on the device – the plus sign that denotes the button to increase the volume – because they thought it was a Christian symbol,” says Mr Bayor.

Despite these difficulties, the Talking Book has been received well. Soap opera, it turns out, is a format that works anywhere in the world.

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