Mawazo Scholar, Melisa Allela, Chosen for HEVA Cultural Heritage Seed Fund

Author: Naliaka Odera

We can’t tell you how exciting it is to hear about one of Scholars excelling in their field and gaining due recognition for their important work. This is exactly how we felt when Melisa Allela, a Mawazo 2018 PhD Scholar, reached out to tell us that she had been selected as a finalist for the prestigious HEVA Cultural Heritage Seed Fund. Melisa is a storyteller and animator who is working on a groundbreaking project to bring Virtual Reality (VR) to African Storytelling. Her work has brought her to the attention of HEVA Fund’s new initiative, in partnership with the British Council. The Cultural Heritage Seed Fund is intended “to support the seeding of dynamic creative industry projects, which pioneer new ways of creating inclusive and sustainable growth through the sharing and preservation of Kenya’s cultural heritage.” Which is exactly what Melisa’s interrogation into the use of VR and animation to preserve intangible African culture is doing.

In an email to us, Melisa thanked us for the support Mawazo had given her, “I gained a lot of invaluable skills and knowledge over the last year, that helped inform this application.” Through Mawazo grants, Melisa was able to buy much needed VR equipment and attend international conferences that validated her learning, exposed her to new ideas, and helped further her research. With the financing from HEVA, she plans to create five traditional storytelling VR reenactments in an extension of her ongoing doctoral research (where she is creating an, “immersive and interactive animated adaptation of Ugandan poet Okot p’Bitek’s narrative poem, Song of Lawino.” These additional stories will be drawn from legends, myths, folktales, animal fables, and riddles from around Kenya. Melisa has chosen stories that are not only entertaining but that also exemplify the best in African storytelling in terms of indigenous education, philosophy, morality, belief systems, and the development of a sense of cultural identity and belonging.

Additionally, Melisa plans to create a database that will be the first of its kind, composed of a motion capture data set, including culturally accurate gestures, as well as speech synthesis that will help inform future digital orature. The database will not only be the first to be focused on African gestures, mannerisms, and speech patterns, but it will also be available to future animators and game developers. Through Melisa’s work many more people, and future generations, will have a tangible link to the unique aspects of African storytelling. Melisa is also creating crucial data that will allow for more distinctly African voices and projects to take the global stage. Ultimately, this is the kind of change Mawazo envisions, broad, transformational change inspired by supporting women in STEM.

Congratulations Melisa!

You can read more about Melisa’s research under her blog entry here.