Arts & Culture

Alum releases children’s book

Mugodi ’18 addresses low childhood literacy, strives to feature multifaceted African characters

Senior Staff Writer
Monday, October 1, 2018

“Greedy Gari” is available at the Brown bookstore. It is published in two languages — English and Shona, an indigenous language of Zimbabwe.

Improving childhood literacy rates is a daunting task, but recent Brown alum and entrepreneur Gwendolene Mugodi ’18 has already taken steps to address this problem in her first children’s book, “Greedy Gari.” Mugodi published her project in two languages, English and Shona — one of Zimbabwe’s 15 indigenous languages. While at Brown, Mugodi collaborated with her friend Kelechukwu Udozorh ’18 to start Toreva Books— a nonprofit publishing press committed to releasing books that feature and engage with a myriad of African characters.

According to Mugodi, “Greedy Gari,” which became available for preorder this summer, details the life of a young boy with a tremendous love of food and the adventures he has at a wedding. “Some of Gari’s characteristics in the book were also cherry-picked from my own childhood, but I won’t say which,” Mugodi said. Currently, only those who ordered the book during its July presale have received copies, Mugodi said. But copies of the book are now available in the Brown Bookstore as well as on Toreva’s website. This November, Toreva will officially launch the book for purchase in Zimbabwe.

As a young girl growing up in Zimbabwe, Mugodi hadn’t read any books that reflected her cultural and racial heritage. After she read “Purple Hibiscus” by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in the eleventh grade, “there was an awakening to the magic of seeing someone like yourself in a book,”  Mugodi said.

When Mugodi returned to Zimbabwe after her first year at Brown, she became aware that 70 percent  of Zimbabwean children who enter a first-grade classroom exclusively speak one of the indigenous languages at home. Because the education system assumes that students know English, this literacy gap places many students at a disadvantage, according to Toreva’s website. The nonprofit aims to solve this problem by publishing children’s books in all of Zimbabwe’s native languages and in English.

To support her entrepreneurship, Mugodi received a Swearer Center for Public Service Fellowship as well as support from the Heimark Fund and the Brown International Scholarship Committee. Mugodi also attended the Breakthrough Lab, a rigorous eight-week accelerator intended to support students developing entrepreneurial projects. “Brown allowed me to grow this idea from a dream to reality,” Mugodi said.

Jason Harry, director of B-Lab and professor of the practice of engineering, noted that Toreva is an example of entrepreneurship that goes against the stereotype that resigns startups to technological focuses. “We’re looking for ventures that have impact at scale and address a significant unmet need,” Harry said. According to Harry, Toreva’s solutions to this “unmet need” include improving children’s literacy in indigenous languages, in part to prepare them for learning a new language.

Both Harry and Mugodi reflected on the progress made during their summer at the B-Lab — a fully configured website, Toreva’s first book and sales. “B-Lab gave us valuable time, a working space and the mentorship we needed to actualize a lot of our goals,” Mugodi said.

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