“While mass education is a nationally-controlled institution, it clearly has a worldwide and universal character. Indeed, the curricula of mass educational systems show increasingly worldwide homogeneity and stability. Everywhere it is put forward as a modern and scientifically supported instrument of progress.” –  The Curricular Content of Primary Education in Developing Countries: By Aaron Benavot and David Kamens

This trend has obvious benefits, such as the emergence of a universal norm of what constitute basic skills and students’ subsequent exposure and intended mastery of them, as well as the development of universal assessment standards. However, as witnessed firsthand in our field research, homogenized and often Western-centric curricula can also lead to confusion and or a lack of engagement in the learning process. For example, what sense could learning “Y for  Yacht” have for a primary student learning the alphabet in rural Gambia? 

After visiting dozens of classrooms, we drew a hypothesis that on of the causes for child illiteracy is the lack of connection between the content and their cultural context. Of all the classrooms we visited across different cities and countries, none employed a curriculum that resonated culturally with the learners in the room.

Too many times, we saw children learning to read in a secondary language, with middle class western literacy training approaches and content that taught them to say “I for Igloo,”  or “K for Kangaroo.” Additionally, few of the characters, stories, cultural references, and settings presented in typical textbooks meant anything to the children. To some extent, the materials that are still widely used today to teach basic literacy only further exacerbate a western-centric view of the world, and distances these learners from their own culture instead of reinforcing it (as it so successfully does across Western societies).

Unfortunately, the same thing is happening in the dissemination of educational software. The vast majority of the resources that are deployed in schools and afterschool programs that are lucky to have computers or tablets in Sub-Saharan Africa are designed and built in and for Europe, Australia or the USA.

In response to this increasing cultural globalization, however, we are seeing a global return to authenticity as a way of celebrating and perpetuating local culture, and empowering a new generation to recognize the richness of their own. Across Sub-Saharan Africa, organizations like the African Storybook Project, Nal’ibali, Ubongo or Tinga Tinga Tales are seeing incredible success writing locally-inspired stories for children and teenagers, stories that celebrate local culture, present local characters with local names and accents, and take place in familiar settings.

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For adolescents, local and global studios have come up with African superheroes, from Black Panther (Marvel) to Kwezi (Loyiso Mkize Art in South Africa) to Avonome (Comic Republic in Nigeria). This renewed celebration of local culture contributeto revising the traditional narrative that prevails in African education – a narrative that imposes a Western-centric view of the world at the expense of local culture.

As we thought about our own piece of software, we saw how important it was to design something that felt authentically African, designed specifically for our target users. We did not want to fall into the trap of repurposing existing content designed for other audiences, countries and cultures. We were particularly inspired by the game Never Alone, a puzzle-platformer video game designed by E-Line Media (Seattle) to popularize tribal Alaskan culture.

Like Never Alone, SEMA is fully inspired by African culture. Before writing anything, we analyzed over 50 popular African stories, written by successful organizations like Nal’ibali and the African Storybook Project, and identified common themes across their plots and character types to get a good idea of what had already worked. We then worked closely with Chief Nyamweya, a Kenyan storyteller and entrepreneur, to create the narrative for SEMA based on those findings. Examples of this work include:

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Narrative. Sema (Swahili for “Speak”), is inspired by popular African bedtime stories about children’s encounters with ogres such as the story of Kenyunsia from the Abagusii people in Kenya. Many communities used the ogre as a metaphor for the dominant fears of a culture. Similarly, the Nightrunner represents the considerable social and economic challenges that confront African students. Sema’s defiance to the obstacles before her make her both the archetypal student and heroine. In Sema and her brother Paul, we see Africa’s bright youth who are full of enthusiasm and promise, and carry the hopes of their grandparents and society as a whole.

Graphics. Sema’s graphics and designs were taken directly from our travels to The Gambia, South Africa and Kenya. During each trip, we took detailed pictures of our surroundings – from the Savannah to huts to schools and urban slum housing – and sent those pictures to our game designers. Every time they designed something, we would send it back to our local Kenyan teammates for validation.

Music. SEMA’s music is equally inspired by African music and rhythm. The music for Sema needed to be upbeat and playful, whilst taking influence from traditional African music. Africa being a hugely diverse continent, it was important to study a wide range of African music, from Kenyan Benga to the percussion ensembles of West Africa. The resulting score consisted almost entirely of traditional African instruments, with balafon, mbira and skin drums such as dunun playing key roles. The music contains a strong sense of groove, as rhythm and dance play a huge part in African music.

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Listen to SEMA’s theme song on Soundcloud

Characters. Finally, our proudest creation may be our protagonists, Sema, Paul and Grandpa Holio. work on the ground revealed just how close siblings and families are today in Sub-Saharan Africa. Designing characters with whom our learners can identify and placing them in a family context that feels familiar to learners – with the Grandpa guiding them along their journey – resonated with our learners. Sema is one of the first African female superheroes (along with Bidemi Ogunde, Aje and a few others created by Comic Republic) and the first African female child superhero. We hope her audacity, courage and strength of character can be an example and an inspiration for hundreds of thousands of children – girls and boys alike. Paul, her little brother and partner in crime, who accompanies her on most of her adventures, was inspired by so many African primary school aged-boys, all obsessed with soccer and hoping to become professional soccer players. His character leverages the universal bond created by the global sport, and creates an additional touch point with which learners can identify.

As outlined above, you can see the many ways that Kukua enhances SEMA’s rigorous research-backed content with a magical and culturally-affirming context. As beautifully put by Chinese principal Michael Meng-de Y in an interview with the Shanghai Daily about his own country’s challenge to support students’ cultural identity while preparing them for life in an increasingly globalized world, at Kukua we agree that it is important to keep your roots because, “Only when you find your own voice, can you raise your voice and be heard. “

Complete Cast of Characters of SEMA