Reach for the stars – Isthmus
Joel Baraka was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in a refugee camp in Uganda; Anson Liow is originally from Malaysia and after high school he volunteered with refugee communities. The two met at UW-Madison and bonded around their mutual love of games. they co-created 5 STA-Z, a game that attracts international attention and attracts funding. It also helps children learn in refugee camps.
Joel: In high school, I took an entrepreneurial leadership course. There, they really made me think about my community and where I come from. I had to think about the issues I saw in my community and what I could do about them. I was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but we fled to Uganda to escape the civil war. I grew up in Kyangwali refugee camp in Uganda and received a high school scholarship to attend African Leadership Academy in South Africa. While taking the entrepreneurship course, I realized that going to school and education changed my life, but many children in my community still did not have access to quality education. I thought that maybe I could do something to help other refugee children in my community have a chance to go to school.
Anson: Joel and I had this interesting connection where we both worked with refugee children and we both love to play games. I’m from Malaysia, and after high school I volunteered with refugee communities. Teachers in refugee camps have to deal with overcrowded classrooms, like 150 students in a classroom. It’s a big part of our company’s social mission – to help teachers and students by providing fun learning materials.
Joel: Thinking back to what school had been like for me, there are some things that I had not liked. I love to socialize and play all kinds of games with my peers. But while you attend class, you are supposed to sit and listen to a teacher. There’s nothing wrong with this approach, but as a kid I didn’t like this kind of setup. The entrepreneurial leadership course made me ask “What can I do about the education system to make the environment more childish?” »This is how I designed my educational game, 5 STA-Z.
Anson: Thinking back to my childhood, elementary school was fun for me because I was involved in a lot of extracurricular activities, but I didn’t really like going to class due to the rigidity of the system. It would have been better if we had had games or activities in the classrooms.
Joel: I am amazed every day by Anson’s love for games. To me, he’s like that young board game guru. He has this great passion to understand how they work and their different mechanics, which is incredible. When we first met here at UW-Madison and lived in the same dorm, we played tons of games – volleyball and soccer during the day and board games at night. There was a board game marathon every night!
Anson: Remember when we played Jenga? You had never seen him before and brought him back to Uganda!
Joel: Well, that’s how it all started! I was still working on 5 STA-Z because I did pilot tests simultaneously, but it was still in its infancy. When Anson arrived, he helped make it a complete product.
Anson: The game consists of a star-shaped board that can accommodate up to five players. We have tried to make the game as easy as possible. It is basically a question-and-answer card game based on the curriculum. Children take turns asking and answering and they can move around the board if they answer correctly. We’ve incorporated other game mechanics like chance and danger to make it less obvious for smarter kids to always win. It’s a simple game, but the beauty of it is that it’s kid-centered. Now the learning takes place among the children. When they ask questions and share answers, there is a lot of discussion going on. There is learning and it is also fun.
Joel: Her name, 5 STA-Z, was inspired by a simple idea that every child is destined for the stars; all they need are the tools and resources to just be. The “5” represents the idea that we wanted each board to accommodate up to five students to allow small group learning compared to hundreds of children in a single classroom. The “AZ” represents the idea that we wanted the game to cover the Ugandan educational program from start to finish. When kids play the game, the five players actually take the names of the five brightest stars in the galaxy (Sirius, Canopus, Rigil, Arcturus, and Vega).
Anson: The game obviously makes learning fun, but it also complements the limited resources they have. Textbooks are not easy in refugee camps. What we do is try to find ways to get the money to produce these games and we provide them for free.
Joel: One thing I liked talking to kids is that kids tell you the truth. They will tell you what is good in the game, but also what is not, what was useful for the improvements. They don’t necessarily point out how they learn, but point out how fun school becomes for them.
Anson: They might not show how they learn, but we see it! In Uganda, after the seventh grade, students take the primary learning exam to determine if they are ready for high school. This year, one of the communities we work with achieved a record number of accolades among students on the exam.
Joel: This is actually the elementary school I attended. This primary school has been in Kyangwali refugee camp for about 60 years, and children have never had such high marks in its history. In the refugee camp, there were no computers or the internet to use at home when schools closed due to COVID. We created a GoFundMe and raised around $ 12,000, so we were able to produce the games and give them to parents and children at home. This is how they were able to study. It makes us feel like the game has made a huge impact.
Anson: So far we have distributed 5 STA-Z to eight primary schools, reached nearly 5,000 students and distributed over 900 games. We want to do more than just 5 STA-Z, but we are still students. I am a first year master’s student and Joel is a fifth year undergraduate student.
Joel: Sure, it can be difficult at times, but knowing that our work will impact a child’s life in their access to education and hopefully a better future one day is what matters. really for us.
Anson: We can still do the things we love as long as we accomplish whatever we want to accomplish with “My Home Stars”. We won a Wisconsin Without Borders Fellowship from the University of Wisconsin in 2020 and the Wisconsin Idea Fellowship this year, where we will be working with a few professors from UW Madison to continue to improve our work.
Joel: Yes, it’s really great to see how the Badger community in Wisconsin, and around the world through UW alumni, has helped us. Our GoFundMe campaign has been a huge success, and we really owe all of this to the amazing people who have supported us so much. It means a lot every time we win something because I think of the children. Anson, me and the rest of the team winning something means we can continue to support these kids.
This is an edited version of Joel Baraka and Anson Liow’s story, which was produced by Jade Iséri-Ramos as part of Wisconsin Humanities’ Love Wisconsin storytelling project. See their full story and other Love Wisconsin stories at lovewi.com.