The superhero extravaganza Black Panther is not only the first big-budget superhero movie led by black stars (and easily the most financially successful), it is also quickly becoming a rallying point for African Americans as they remember their rich cultural heritage. As full of out-of-this-world special effects as it is, this extravagant Hollywood story is helping people connect with their own, real-life stories.

In the West African country of Benin, a group of local professionals and students are working on a project to help preserve their  stories in written form.

It started with a problem: the students who the Three Sisters organization work with did not have any books in the languages they spoke at home.

Can you imagine having NO books for your children in your own language? There are over fifty languages spoken in Benin—languages infused with their own history and culture. So rather than just grab stories from other cultures and translate them into local languages, Three Sisters decided to take a different approach. They went out and recorded community members telling the folk tales they remembered from when they were kids—stories their parents had told them.

Linguists, students, and local photographers pooled their talents and, with the help of the Bloom software developed by SIL International, they began to put together what they called “Books that Bind” in five of the local languages.

 Judith is the project's photographer. She has a great eye and will do whatever it takes to get the shot.

Judith is the project's photographer. She has a great eye and will do whatever it takes to get the shot.

An initial pilot program in collaboration with Michigan State’s Peace and Justice Studies program lead to several books, which in turn led to a self-help grant from the U.S. Embassy in Benin that is paying for the production costs of the next run of books and the building of several “Free Little Libraries” in local schools.

Here’s a video of Volume 1 of the “Books that Bind” pilot project being read in one of those five languages, Fongbe.


Isn’t that amazing?

Not only do these children now have stories to read in their own languages, but for the first time in history the written word is no longer something being offered to them by people outside their communities. Their rich oral storytelling tradition is being preserved, and a new tradition of written storytelling has begun. How empowering is that?

And who knows…? Maybe one day one of these children will grow up to write their own Black Panther.

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Make sure to head over to to learn how you can help grow this work, and don’t forget to check out  SIL LEAD’s ongoing work in bringing Bloom to the world—helping to make projects like “Books that Bind” possible.

AuthorJosh Barkey