Bringing African children’s stories to a new generation

What do you do if the bookstore doesn’t have books in your language, or they’re just too expensive? Sadly, this is often the case in Africa, a continent that is home to more than 2 000 languages.

On a continent with over 2000 languages, finding mother tongue children’s books is a challenge. (Image: African Storybook)

Brand South Africa reporter

Holidays are a great occasion for reading, whether children are reading quietly to themselves or are sitting with their families with a book. But what do you do if the bookstore doesn’t have books in your language, or they’re just too expensive? Sadly, this is often the case in Africa, a continent that is home to more than 2 000 languages.

The African Storybook project may hold some solutions for families who want to read African stories with their children. It started in Kenya, Uganda, South Africa and Lesotho, and has spread to Niger, Ghana, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania and Mozambique.

In this time, it has collected more than 2 300 stories in 62 African languages. They are all free for download or printing, with some highlighted stories available in video format on the project’s YouTube channel. All the tales offer fascinating insights into how people on the continent tell stories that explore sometimes tough themes and ideas.

“Children’s books can tackle big themes in the simplest ways,” says African Storybook artist Catherine Groenewald. The stories deal with real issues faced by children in Africa today in a compassionate, realistic yet humorous manner. Death, urbanisation, respect for elders, and many more moral lessons are taught using the story format, accompanied by vibrant art.

Here are some stories from the project’s website that children of all ages can enjoy during the long school holiday and once they’re back in class:

Tselane and the giant

After Tselane’s father dies her mother wants them to move to another village to start a new life. But Tselane does not want to go; her mother agrees to let her stay on her own. They make a pact that Tselane must only open the door when she hears her mother sing. But a giant is listening to their conversation and plans to catch Tselane.

Nozibele, Meriri and Meraro

Three young girls go to the forest to gather some wood on a hot day. There is enough, they think, and they can swim until it gets cooler. But by the time they finish swimming, it is already late and they have to rush back home.

Khayanga

Khayanga, a 10-year-old-girl, is taken in by a distant, poor and frail relative after the death of her parents. Her loss and pain lead her to seek guidance and comfort from her parents’ graves.

Other stories include Leaving One Home for Another, about spending the holidays with grandmother in the countryside. Exploring the effects of a rapidly urbanised Africa, this is a familiar theme for many. And the story’s moral of strong family ties and teaching respect for elders is a universal one, ringing true in any culture and language.

The African Storybook series also features more traditional African stories that often convey a moral lesson or caution against greed and other vices, such as the Ghanaian story Anansi and Turtle. In this story, Anansi the spider greedily eats all the food before his dinner guest Turtle gets a chance. But what can Anansi do when Turtle invites him over to her place for dinner – under water?

Other stories are far more serious, such as Tingi and the Cows. Based on real events, the story is about soldiers entering a village as seen from the perspective of a young herd boy. It is an excellent starting point for a conversation about fear and brutality that has affected people across the continent, including many children. It’s a reminder that not all children are lucky enough to fully enjoy the holidays.

While teaching important life lessons, children also get a chance to develop their love of reading and language. Sometimes the tone of the books is also a little more nonsensical, funny and interactive. In Mr Fly and Mr Bighead, two whimsical characters want to cross a river. But Mr Bighead’s head is so big that he sinks. Mr Fly, on the other hand, “laughed so much that his mouth tore in two from one side to the other”.

Going global

The African Storybook caters, as the name indicates, to African languages. But sharing traditional and contemporary African stories is also important, not least for children from elsewhere to partake in the rich oral tradition and experience a positive picture of the continent.

The creation of the Global African Storybook Project has made this possible. Stories have been translated into Cantonese, German, Hindi, Jamaican Creole, Norwegian and many more – 16 languages in total, and growing.

This gives children from all over the world the chance to read stories from and about Africa.

Telling your own stories

The best stories are the ones you make up yourself. This is not only possible with the African Storybook, it is encouraged. Many of the stories on the website are adaptations of stories that others have written. The picture database has thousands of pictures that can be used to make a new story, or added to an existing story.

Stories can serve many purposes, and with the African Storybook and Global African Storybook Project, African children’s stories are more accessible than ever before, in African and non-African languages alike.

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