Learn Setswana app facilitates Germany South Africa cultural exchange

Apps (the shortened name for Applications – or programmes that we download to our cellphones, tablets and laps) are pretty much a personal affair, you download them to your private device and use them for your unique needs. Maybe an Instagram, a whatsapp or a twitter are part of the more public apps because we communicate with other Batswana and the world through those. So appreciating what the power of some apps outside of social media achieve needs a little helping hand.

Itumeleng Garebatshabe, Obakeng Kokwe, Arno Faul (Mothusi) and Keneilwe Mohutsiwa
Itumeleng Garebatshabe, Obakeng Kokwe, Arno Faul (Mothusi) and Keneilwe Mohutsiwa

What follows is an interesting story about what apps can and have achieved in a very real sense. It is a story of a growing legion of young German volunteers who know Setswana. The volunteers learnt Setswana in the North West province of South Africa, taught primarily by a community socio-economic developer. The community developer used the ‘Learn Setswana’ app to assist the German volunteers – and finally… the app itself is developed in Botswana by a Motswana… It’s a modern day legend, but the story of Learn Setswana is an inspiration at worst and an amazing investment opportunity at best.

The story starts at a not for profit organisation (NPO) in the North West of South Africa called Madikwe Rural Development Programme (MRDP) established in 1986. According to the website the main goal of the MRDP is to improve the living situation of the rural community in the Madikwe area. The organisation aims to empower community members through various initiatives including life skills training and adult literacy. Programmes of this nature are not strictly speaking commercial enterprises, though they aim to develop and improve people’s livelihood to a point where they can effect positive change in their own communities. The South African government has supported the NPO in various ways, while the MRDP has also managed to raise funds through various initiatives that involved the community. However as it is the output of the programme needs as much support as it can get since reaching its objectives is a long term goal.

Volunteers learning setswana games
Volunteers learning setswana games

In 1993 the MRDP project caught the attention of the German South African Youth Association (GSAYA) who wanted to explore if the MRDP would be open to their unique type of support. The GSAYA is part of a German programme called Weltwärts; which is a joint venture between the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and civil society organizations. Weltwärts sends out young Germans to the world as volunteers. The programme promotes global learning and aims to provide an understanding to German youths of how they fit into the greater global concern of socio economic development. The volunteers are intended to appreciate how they can make a difference and perhaps why they need to help achieve that end. In Madikwe the volunteers assist in all aspects of the MRDP projects, from educational initiatives to fund raising activities.

As a practical measure, and to help foster closer ties with the community, the volunteers are encouraged to learn local languages of where they are placed. This is where the Learn Setswana App enters the narrative. The app was used by Arno Mothusi Faul, who runs the MRDP, to help teach the German volunteers the basics of Setswana since 2014.  Learn Setswana, developed by Intellegere a developer company from Botswana simplifies the process of learning Setswana. By using technology Faul’s task of interacting with the German volunteers and starting to teach them the language was made simpler and more efficient. Through the App students can read the word and hear a recording of how to say the word right on their cell phones.

Recently before the August 2016 intake of the next batch of German volunteers from their yearlong engagement, Faul’s phone suffered a mishap and he lost the app. He reached out to the developers, Itumeleng Garebatshabe looking for access to the Learn Setswana app once again. The Intellegere team took a trip out to Madikwe in South Africa to meet with Arno to see exactly what his project was about and how they could assist. This lead to a new collaboration being formed.

“What we found there is quite amazing, there I this old man using technology and our app for exactly what we had hoped, but in his own way,” said Garebatshabe. “Arno would teach his volunteers Setswana as they need to learn the language to talk to the Batswana that they will be interacting with for a year. Instead of getting all the kids to download the app – Arno used his phone as a teaching aide. We just loved that fact that at least the app was doing what we intended but couldn’t get why Arno just didn’t get these kids to download it and learn in their own time off their own cellphones,” mused Garebatshabe.

After touring the development programme and witnessing the power of Learn Setswana to bring people closer through communication, a new agreement was formed between Intellegere and MRDP. The Botswana company would support MRDP during the next induction session of a fresh batch of German volunteers. The Intellegere team formed a part of the induction in Madikwe and supervised the downloading of the app onto all the volunteers’ cellphones. The team also had a chance to observe the interaction to take back some learnings on what other improvements can be made to the app.

Garebatshabe said, ”This is exactly what we like to see occur – African technology being used by first world countries to bring our cultures closer. I hear that the volunteers undergo a 9 day induction process in Germany before they come to Madikwe. I don’t see why we can’t create a special version of Learn Setswana that can be used as part of that induction process. In fact wouldn’t it be great if the students arrive in Madikwe already knowing how to greet and ask for directions? After their 12 months in their programme they can take Learn Setswana back with them and help keep their language skill strong. Maybe they will return one day as Investors, teachers, ambassador from Germany and pick up where they left off without having to relearn a language they learnt in their youth.”

The next batch of German volunteers arrived in Madikwe on the 18th of August to help continue the growing legacy of the MRDP. The young Germans also get an opportunity to gain a better understanding of the developing world for their future endeavours. For people like Faul who has been working on the project for 28 years it is another step closer to achieving his vision of a developed Madikwe area which is producing sustainably. Technology is a means of realising that dream faster.