Anthropologist’s Project Teaches the Power of Books

O'Neil explained how students at Michigan State University partnered with linguists in Benin to transcribe and transcribe and translate traditional folktales at a presentation Tuesday at the Rochester Hills Public Library


The Library of Congress has over 25 million books. About half of them are written in English. The British Library, which receives a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom and Ireland, adds three million items every year.

There are so many books in English, it’s hard for native speakers to imagine not having access to something written in their language.

During her research in the West African country of Benin, anthropologist Marcy Hessling O’Neil and her colleagues discovered there were no children’s books written in the country’s indigenous languages, so she started a project to change that. On Tuesday, O’Neil shared her project, “Books that Bind,” at the Rochester Hills Public Library.

“I think there’s a real passion for philanthropy and education in Rochester,” community relations specialist for the Rochester Hills Public Library Amanda Keighley said before the event. “I hope people will leave feeling inspired.”

Benin is a country about the size of Pennsylvania located between Nigeria and Ghana. It was colonized by France in the mid 19th century but became independent in 1960. Although Benin’s official language is French, 50 other languages are spoken there.

“Almost everyone speaks another language in addition to French at home,” O’Neil said.

O’Neil studies the effects of education on the extended family and has worked in Benin since 2005. Through ethnographic research, O’Neil studies the impact that one person going to school has on a household.

Benin has a high illiteracy rate due to the number of school dropouts and the loss of literacy skills. In 2014, O’Neil and her colleagues Anie Semassoussi, Judith Vlafonou, and Sandrine Chikou started Three Sisters, a community based organization to provide free tutoring for children who have one or more parent who can’t read.

“We were just really trying to strengthen the education sector,” O’Neil said. “I had friends who had never had the chance to go to school, so they were spending their money to get their kids into school, but once the kids got to about third grade, the parents couldn’t help them anymore because they couldn’t read.”

Instead of providing extra schooling on nights or weekends, Three Sisters brought tutors into the home so that parents could benefit, too. The tutoring is funded by selling handcrafted artisan goods from West Africa in the U.S.

But the program faced challenges.

“The situation we run into in Benin is that many of the parents who didn’t get to go to school don’t speak French,” O’Neil said.

That meant when children brought books home, their parents couldn’t be involved because they didn’t understand the language.

“At the same time, I would talk to grandparents, and they were telling us how when they were younger, their grandparents would sit everyone underneath the mango tree, and they would tell them these folktales at night, and they were meant to educate the children,” O’Neil said.

According to the grandparents O’Neil talked to, kids didn’t have time to sit under the tree and listen to stories anymore. All they cared about was their school work, comic books, and phones.

Comic books and phones weren’t keeping kids from their free classes, though. The most marginalized children were missing out because families expected them to earn money to contribute to the household, which is common in Benin. Providing free education couldn’t make up for that.

O’Neil and her team set out to create a solution: books.

According to O’Neil, owning one book increases a person’s chance of completing schooling by 20-25 percent.

“If families had access to even one book in a home, it would be more likely that the kids would finish school,” she said.

Additionally, the skills children gained while creating books, like typing and digital photography, would give them access to better jobs in the future.

The books would be an educational tool, too. Because the folktales are told in French, English, and an indigenous language, parents could engage with their kids as they read. The books would also be a new way to pass down the traditional oral stories.

“It’s like a tool for education in the formal and informal sectors,” O’Neil said. “We thought this was like a win-win project.”

Working with linguists from Benin, the team recorded and translated the stories. To illustrate them, they did photo shoots with the community. Finally, using WhatsApp, O’Neil’s students at Michigan State University collaborated with the people in Benin to turn the stories into books.

So far, they’ve created 12 folktales and distributed over 500 books to schools and libraries.

Having these stories written down is important, O’Neil said.

“I don’t know if you have a favorite book, but me, I have a couple favorite books, and even if I haven’t read them for a long time, I thin about them often, and they sort of guide the way I live,” she said. “I think that if we don’t get these stories down… the stories will get lost…By having physical copies of them, you can at least have people who remember the physical copy and think about them, and talk about them, and share them with others.”

O’Neil knows that most people don’t think about literacy rates in West Africa or preserving the cultural heritage of Benin in their daily lives.

“As an applied anthropologist, I read a lot of theory, and I read about the world’s problems, but sometimes they can seem really far away,” she said.

O’Neil said she hopes that learning about the Three Sisters book project will help people realize the importance of filling our libraries with diverse material. She also said this project shows how people can come together across cultures and continents to find solutions to big problems.

“Average, everyday people can be a part of a solution,” she said.

To learn more about Three Sisters and the Books that Bind project, visit