In the run up to the launch of RadioBook Rwanda in Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, the three young creatives behind the international publishing project reflect on the digital journey of their new imprint.
RadioBook Rwanda is a multimedia literary imprint showcasing creative voices from Rwanda and East Africa. It’s first output is a triptych of bilingual pocketbooks with complementary podcasts and audiobooks. The imprint is the brainchild of three independent international publishers: Huza Press (Kigali, RW), Kwani Trust (Nairobi, KE) and No Bindings (Bristol, UK). It was supported by the British Council East Africa Arts Programme.
What intrigued you to create a multimedia imprint to showcase Rwandan writing?
Louise Umutoni: In Rwanda, radio has has always been really far reaching with many Rwandans tuning in to listen to different radio shows. It has not been the same with reading. The reading culture is still relatively poor. So, we thought, ‘how do we reach people with these texts?’, and turning them into audiobooks seemed like an obvious solution at the time. Just having the material as audio content, online, we anticipated greater reach without having to worry about the hassle of getting the printed texts across borders and oceans and so there were practical reasons too. We also wanted to experiment with this new content and ask, ‘can we go beyond the book, can we have a much wider effect?’.
Otieno Owino: The reasoning for us wanting to create a multimedia imprint came out of us wanting to extend the possibilities of what a book is and how people consume stories. It was also a genuine interest in meeting our audiences in ways that are ‘cool’, essentially because the target audience was younger people (18-35). To speak of Nairobi, there had already been a rising popularity of podcasts as a medium of storytelling and a lot of young people were turning to audiobooks as a means of experiencing stories. This new imprint was to contribute to an already growing fan base of audiobook enthusiasts but offering fresh new writing by Rwandan writers not already well known in Kenya.
Lily Green: With No Bindings, I specialise in combining audio, community and print. Oral storytelling, whether it be ancient epics, or contemporary spoken word, allowed and allows for a different kind of access to literature. Back in 2016, when I started No Bindings, I very much saw podcasts, and to a certain extent, radio as the digitised version of that oral tradition.
The popularity of radio in the East Africa region, the growing demand for podcasts in Kenya, and the publishing community that Huza Press has been building, meant that working with No Bindings was a good fit.
The intrigue for me was learning from the other two publishers and working internationally. Within the collaboration, we all had something to offer: my approach to form, Louise’s ongoing work building up a literary and publishing infrastructure in Rwanda, and Kwani’s long-standing work publishing new literary talent from the continent. The ‘new Art new Audiences’ afforded us the chance to take the risk to create something novel and ambitious.
Knowledge Exchange and Research Trip to Kigali, Rwanda
What did we learn about digital consumption in the UK/Rwanda/Kenya and what were we inspired by?
Louise: For us at Huza, we already knew that Rwandans consume a lot more audio content than they do print. However, I think what was interesting was actually producing the audio content. There were quite a few challenges getting our heads around how to produce an audiobook and getting people who understood what it entailed to work on the product. However, we were really impressed with how quickly people caught on and were willing to experiment and learn. The result was some really fantastic content. There was a lot of learning for us but that’s expected when you are doing something that has not previously been done. People aren’t accustomed to experiencing books through the radio, so it will be really exciting to see the response when they are broadcast here in Rwanda.
Lily: What didn’t we learn! In March 2019, myself and Eloise Stevens, the audio producer, visited Kigali for for three weeks to learn about what our target audience, 18-35 year olds in Kigali, wanted from books and audio. Louise and Huza’s literary producer, Lucky Grace Isingizwe, already had a lot of understanding around consumption of audio, so we grilled them over many teas and coffees. They also connected us to other digital innovators in the city.
Jado Castor at Radio TV 10 was able to give us insight into what languages to use. Kinyarwanda is spoken by all, but there is a growing demand for English language content among the younger generation
The Girl Effect run Ni Nyaminga, a quarterly magazine and weekly radio show for young girls. It is insanely popular and they have an interactive element through a mobile messaging service.
It became clearer and clearer just how much mobiles and smartphones were the go-to for personal and professional communication. For example, Moto drivers use the uber-like app, SafeMoto. All our meetings were set up via WhatsApp and it felt so intimate to be contacting the leading creatives in the city in that way.
This usage of digital technology got me interested in other ways that we might distribute the audio content besides radio and podcast platforms and I pitched the idea to Louise and Lucky Grace, how would people respond to receiving the audio content through WhatsApp? They were both excited by that idea and Louise put me in touch with her sister, Clarisse Iribagiza, the CEO of tech company, HeHe Limited. The issue we discussed was data. Would there be capacity for 20 – 25 minute audio to be sent from phone to phone? Clarisse introduced me to, ARED, a social enterprise where vendors, the majority women, are given training to maintain solar powered charging kiosks in the city, and make a living off selling charging time. The kiosks also have a WiFi radius of 10m or so, where users interface with a free webpage, with advertisements, before accessing other apps and websites etc. It seemed to me that ‘digital’ in Rwanda was all about the mobile and the smartphone. And, although we found a similar network for fixed internet shops, that also help with government paperwork, this also taught us that digital content was being accessed in places that encourage people to gather in real spaces. Much like an audience gathers around a storyteller, people huddled around WiFi hotspots.
Where and how have people experienced the audio so far?
Oti: There was a very positive but mixed reception to the audio elements of the radiobooks in Nairobi. While the dramatized stories brought the print work to a new life and was really well received, it is the conversation podcasts that have been most well talked about by people who’ve listened to the work. People I have spoken to laud the new dynamic brought on by the conversations with the artists and writers involved in the creation of the work and those whose voices depict similar experiences to those in the stories. These readers/listeners say the mix adds to the mood, and gives a glimpse of the collaborative relationships taken in the creation of the stories. The universe of the stories widen, so to speak, and many people were very excited about this. To them, it is as if the very act of the conversations invite the readers into the creation process.
Lily: At the UK launch of RadioBook Rwanda in Bristol’s Pervasive Media Studio, the digital content was presented in both an installation and an impromptu cinema like setting.
To realise the former, I teamed up with my fellow Pervasive Media Studio residents Liam Taylor-West and Emma Hughes from Roomsize. Using the platform, Open Space, VR technology allows for the geolocation of sounds around a physical space. A phone in the pocket, headphones and a tracker, means participants can walk around in a space, handsfree, to discover different sounds. I’d experienced this with their Digital Catapult funded prototype, which used music and wondered how this could transfer over to story.
I proposed setting up the room with three focal points, one for each pocketbook. As the user approached the pocketbook, they begin to hear the dramatised narrations. They could choose to stay and listen or move through the other stories. With some cleverly positioned lighting and a view over the harbour lights, guests explained that they left the experience really moved. Much like the the solar kiosks in Rwanda, they had gathered together around digital focal points.
What can we do next with RadioBook Rwanda audio?
Louise: We’ve partnered with Ubumuntu Arts Festival and we’re trying to use the audio content during the festival to allow people to engage with the literature. Ubumuntu haven’t had a literary element before and they have asked us to create some literary events and content. This is going to be quite interesting because when people think we’re going to be introducing the literary part of the festival they’ll think books but actually we’ll also be using the audio content and the podcasts.
We are also working on engaging with literary podcasts across the continent and trying to see how they can incorporate the content. What’s really good about this content is that it sets the stage for conversations on themes addressed in the books. We’ll also continue to push the audio content on radio.
Oti: From the outset, we’d thought it would be possible to get the audio featured in local radio stations. That has not been possible in Nairobi, but is something we can still pursue. I do think we can also approach established podcasts in our regions, those that have some following to talk about, as well as play the audio content to their dedicated audiences. I think anything going forward has to be to ensure as many people as possible get to listen to this beautifully produced work.
Lily: For me, I’d certainly like to do more live installations with Roomsize, as well as audio cinemas. The other major line of inquiry I’m pursuing is looking into how pre-existing everyday applications like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger might serve as a means to access the audio content. Through a Network for Creative Enterprise bursary I’ve been able to contract creative technologist Tim Kindberg to investigate how image recognition might mean people can simply take a snap of their book, send it to “RadioBook Rwanda” and receive the audio content in return, thus creating a little library of literary content through interactive conversation. Or, I might look at creating a oral literature on demand telephone line for those who aren’t so digitally literate.
What’s been the most interesting or surprising result of creating aural content in conjunction with publishing a book, especially a book that has hand crafted roots and individually sewn binding?
Louise: Through the production of the audio content there was a coming together of so many people from different creative sectors; the artists and writers, the people involved in the production of audio content, actresses, poets and the translators and editors. It was almost as through a community came and as such there’s been a kind of collective ownership of it. In more traditional publishing a lot of what happens is that internally writers work with editors, whereas with these books it’s been quite outward facing. People, especially those in the Rwandan arts scene, know about RadioBook Rwanda because there’s so many touch points with professionals from a wide range of creative disciplines. I would like to do this kind of collaborative work in the future because we’re bringing something quite Rwandan to the rest of the world.
I would also like future publications to incorporate stories from the region and from the UK. Something more collaborative, maybe RadioBook Kenya, RadioBook UK. The question is, how do we push this platform that we have created a little further to ensure wider collaboration. To use it as a meeting point for our stories and experiences.
Oti: Speaking for Nairobi, I think a lot of people were much more excited about the aural content than with the print book. That was surprising because at Kwani we are well-known for our print work and also because the books were so beautifully done, as most of the participants who bought the books at the launch were quick to say.
Lily: It was the Huza team who really pushed for audiobooks to be made. Previously I’d stuck to creating audio that linked to printed texts more thematically. The use of voice actors was a revelation and breathed life into the audio content in a way I had not been expecting. And the dramatised narrations became the staple resource for the installation and the audio cinema.
I’d say the other interesting aspect was seeing how digital, both as an experience and a practical necessity can gather people in the physical realm, much like a performance. This gives me much encouragement when thinking about developing more digital oral literature.
Access the audio universe of RadioBook Rwanda
Online at radiobookrwanda.com
Buy the printed pocketbooks
In the UK:
Online from No Bindings
Max Minervas, Bristol
Online from the Huza Press webstore, Pages Rwanda
Online from Kwani? via DM on Twitter to @kwanitrust
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