South Africa: Cellphone Novel a 'Best-Celler'

Digital Content

South Africa's first bilingual "m-novel" - a novel written for publication via cellphones - was so successful that sequels would be released this year, the Shuttleworth Foundation, which published the novel, said last week.

In two months 63 000 people - 28 000 of them teenagers - signed up to read the m-novel, Kontax, written in English and Xhosa, after the launch in November. The novel, written by a "mobilist" called Sam Wilson, describes the experiences of a crew of young graffiti mural artists and their search for a girl who goes missing in suspicious circumstances.

An estimated 7200 people read all 21 chapters and more than 2 000 entries were submitted in response to a competition for ideas for a sequel, said Steve Vosloo, who leads the m-novel project. The first sequel was launched on March 17.

University of Cape Town (UCT) researchers who studied the project said schools should make better educational use of teenagers' cellphone and internet access with projects such as this.

Only 7% of South African public schools have functional libraries and literacy skills are low. As many as 80% of primary school pupils did not reach the lowest benchmark in an international test comparing the reading skills of children in 40 countries across the globe in 2007. Between 86% and 96% of children speaking African languages did not reach this mark.

The foundation, started by South African internet billionaire Mark Shuttleworth, will explore other ways of using cellphones to encourage teenagers' reading and writing, Vosloo said.

It would also release the mobisite - a website formatted for cellphone use - content management system created as a platform for the m-novel as open-source software. Kontax was available on a mobisite and via the popular cellphone instant messaging platform MXit and readers were offered prizes of free airtime for "best comments" and their ideas for a sequel, which encouraged reading and writing, Vosloo said.

"It was a revelation that - in this instance anyway - teens will read longer-form stories like Kontax on their cellphones (and) they'll engage with the story, the characters and share their ideas for what should happen next. I believe there is enormous potential here, and if we tap into it we'll find that for the foreseeable future the cellphone - not the Kindle - is the e-reader of Africa," said Vosloo.

The novel won a bronze medal in the mobile publishing category in SA's annual digital awards competition, the Bookmarks Awards.

Business Day