How Bilingual Books are Bridging Cultures and Saving Stories

Books that Bind is a cultural preservation project that documents the folktales of Benin, West Africa and employs local youth to create bilingual books that preserve their cultural heritage.

Books that Bind can trace its history back to 2014, when two friends, Marcy Hessling O’Neil and Anie Semassoussi founded Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs to respond to a need in the Benin community. Three Sisters, which would later become the foundation for the Books that Bind project, was inspired by a friend of Hessling O’Neil’s who hadn’t had the opportunity to continue her education past the 2nd grade. She also didn’t speak French, the official language of Benin, and wasn’t able to read, which made it difficult to support her children’s education. She worked hard to keep them in school, but when they had trouble in their classes, she was afraid that they would fail their exams and have to leave as well. This led Hessling O’Neil to draw from her research as a Fulbrighter in Benin as the three women designed a program not just to keep kids in school, but to provide educational support to family members who had already been left out of the system. Their holistic approach includes home visits by tutors and anthropologists, community meetings and Information and Communications Training (ITC) for students during school breaks. In addition, these programs are partially funded by the sale of artisan goods made in Benin and Niger. 

Hessling O’Neil is also an assistant professor at Michigan State University where she often integrates her applied anthropology work with student coursework. One of these projects, Books that Bind, began in 2017 as a partnership between students in her Globalization and Justice class and the students in Benin. The project, documenting folktales through bilingual books, was funded the following year by the US Embassy in Cotonou. This gave Benin students in the program the chance to gain valuable computer skills. In 2019, Three Sisters was awarded the U.S. Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation for a project to record folktales and work with artists to hold workshops for youth so that they are encouraged to interact with their own cultural history. The project will end with a month-long exhibit and gala displaying the paintings, photographs and sculptures created through the project.

The project has received a good reception from the local community. During a recording session in Toume Dakpaho, a passing community member sat down and listened. Upon completion, he asked if he, too, could tell a story. As Hessling O’Neil recorded, the team realized he was telling one of the same stories that they had been told a few years ago by another storyteller. What’s even more incredible is that this story was being told by storytellers nearly 175 km away from one another and both noted that they heard the stories when they were young. Mr. Assogbe Etienne recounted the story in the Yoruba and Mahigbe languages, while Mme. Affovoh Abossede Angele told the story in Fongbe. In addition, the moral of the story is gender equality, which indicates that the USG goals are in line with longstanding messaging from within the community. Finally, the story was told once by a male and once by a female, which indicates that the cultural values related to social practices were being transmitted to community members of all genders.  

This is just one example of how the Books that Bind project is facilitating a connection between cultures and languages in Benin. The project also teaches important cultural lessons to local youth while transcending borders to convey wisdom across the world. Each story is translated into five of the Beninese languages as well as French and English, and are sold online to employ the illustrators and creators.

Three Sisters, including the Books that Bind project, was created as a social enterprise so that their operations wouldn’t be solely dependent on a narrative of those who give and those who receive. In this way, Books that Bind is able to foster connection and share wisdom while generating income for the communities it serves.

To learn more about Three Sisters : Trois Soeurs Foundation, check out their member directory profile.

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