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Students at Gbarnga School of Theology in Libera work on e-readers preloaded with three years of theological content shown in a 2013 file photo. Photo by Jeff Oliver.

Photo by Jeff Oliver

Students at Gbarnga School of Theology in Libera work on e-readers preloaded with three years of theological content shown in a 2013 file photo.

E-Reader Project set to expand in Africa, Philippines

By Sam Hodges
Oct. 20, 2014 | DALLAS (UMNS)

HOW YOU CAN HELP

The E-Reader Project is looking for support from churches, Sunday school classes and individuals. Learn more or donate online.

At Gbarnga School of Theology, there’s no running water, electricity comes and goes, and classrooms remain scarred from when troops occupied them during Liberia’s long civil war.

On top of all this, Gbarnga — pronounced without the “G”— has closed temporarily because of the Ebola epidemic gripping Liberia and much of West Africa.

Still, learning goes on. That’s because each student has an e-reader provided by The United Methodist Church and loaded with books well-suited for a pastor’s education.

“These 85 students have their e-readers with them, wherever they are, and continue to use them to read and study and to preach and teach in churches,” said Robin Pippin of The United Methodist Church’s Discipleship Ministries (formerly known as the Board of Discipleship.)

The denomination’s E-Reader Project, which Pippin helps run, debuted in 2013 at Gbarnga and is set to expand to 15 more United Methodist schools in Africa, as well as four in the Philippines.

Some 1,500 Kindles will be distributed by 2016, catapulting students and faculty members over the digital divide.

Of the E-Reader Project, the Rev. Yatta Young, former Gbarnga dean, said: “Its potential for improving theological education in Africa is enormous.”

Be sure to add the alt. text

The Rev. Yatta Young, former dean of Gbarnga School of Theology, displays

an e-reader.  A 2013 file photo by Jeff Oliver.  

Getting started

The United Methodist Church and Christianity in general have grown rapidly in Africa, and with that has come recognition of the need to support pastor education there. The 2012 General Conference created a $5 million Central Conference Theological Education Fund.

The E-Reader Project grew out of an August 2012 writing seminar in Monrovia, Liberia, led by Pippin and the Rev. Stephen Bryant, who directs international ministry initiatives for Discipleship Ministries. Gbarnga faculty attended, and one day the conversation turned to the struggle their students had getting books.

In some classes, only the professor had a textbook, meaning students photocopied or hand-copied pages to study.

“When Steve and I and photographer Francisco Litardo got back to the Methodist Guest House that evening, we started batting around some ideas,” Pippin said. “Having personally been a relatively early adopter of the Kindle, I wondered aloud whether an e-reader with e-books could serve to resource this particular campus.”

Litardo would soon forward a New York Times story explaining how a former Amazon executive was working to get e-readers to children in developing countries, to boost literacy. This confirmed Bryant and Pippin’s thinking that such a program could serve theology students.

Bryant contacted Young, who enthusiastically agreed that Gbarnga could be the pilot site.

“We thought if it can work there, it can work many, many places in Africa,” Pippin said.

Discipleship Ministries formed a partnership with the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry to launch the E-Reader Project, with the agencies raising $42,000 in starter funds from individuals, churches, annual conferences and foundations.

`A library of its own’

Since early 2013, Gbanga students and faculty members have had basic Kindles loaded with some 180 English-language texts, many bought at deep discount from or donated by United Methodist Publishing House. Cost of the e-reader and texts: about $300.

Texts include Christian education, evangelism, preaching, counseling, church leadership, United Methodist worship, and Wesleyan theology, as well as six Bible translations.

While religious books dominate, students can call up books on health, math and English grammar. The e-readers come with two classic African novels: “Half of a Yellow Sun,” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe.

Though both are taught in U.S. classrooms, the African students hadn’t heard of them until getting Kindles.

Closing that gap “has been one of the best things about the project,” Pippin said.

The Rev. Jerry Kulah, current dean of Gbarnga, knew the e-readers were a hit when he saw students using them to read Scripture during chapel, instead of printed Bibles. Both professors and students quickly saw classroom advantages, namely being able to assign and cover more material.

“The students see the e-reader as a library of its own,” Kulah said.  

Lessons learned

The pilot phase was not flawless. Due to inexperience by the users, and rugged bus travel, some e-readers got broken, and screens were not lighted.

“Several people said, `We wish it had a lighted screen, because at night we have no electricity and we want to be able to read,’” Pippin said.

But such problems were small and correctable (Pippin has since found discounted Kindles that do have a lighted screen).

In September 2013, Young reported on Gbarnga’s experience to leaders of the African Association of United Methodist Theological Institutions.

“They immediately said they wanted to participate as a partner in this program,” said Scott Gilpin, executive director of fund development for Discipleship Ministries.

Providing Kindles to students and faculty at all 16 of the association’s schools and the four in the Philippines will cost about $700,000.

The Central Conference Theological Education Fund has provided one $50,000 grant to the association to help African schools be part of the E-Reader Project. Gilpin is hopeful that the fund will provide two more grants at that level in coming years.

Another income source will be modest fees charged to students. The rest of the money will need to be raised.

About $100,000 has come in so far, and Gilpin is optimistic that more churches, Sunday school classes and individuals will provide help.

“It really is a very understandable project, because when you get down to the common denominator, you’re talking about a $300 e-reader with a theological library,” Gilpin said.

Keeping faith with Gbarnga

Discipleship Ministries and Higher Education and Ministry recently renewed their collaboration on the E-Reader Project, extending the project’s reach to the four schools in the Philippines.

“It is a perfect complement to our ongoing work — promoting theological education in fast growing central conferences, expanding access to theological resources and enhancing the teaching/learning environment at each institution, no matter how remote they are,” said the Rev. Kim Cape, top executive at Higher Education and Ministry.

As the program expands in Africa, it will move into countries where French and Portuguese are the main languages. Finding Wesleyan texts in those languages is a challenge, Pippin said.

The E-Reader Project will, going forward, be based in the schools’ libraries, with students checking out the e-readers. Graduates will get one to keep.

Project leaders promise to keep faith with Gbarnga, and to be ready when it’s open again.

*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org