Writing African stories for African children

Dorcas Wepukhulu

In the eight years of its existence, the African Storybook (ASb) project has grown exponentially, while at the same time, considerably expanding writing and reading opportunities for children and communities in Africa. In 2014, the ASb project launched with 120 unique children’s storybooks and 617 translations representing 20 languages of Africa. Currently, the African Storybook website boasts over 3 000 unique storybooks and over 7 000 translations with 224 languages of Africa represented. See, www.africanstorybook.org

Tapping directly into the rich storytelling and oral tradition of Africa and supported by the affordances of technology, opportunities are created for stories to be written, published and shared on the ASb website. The Story Maker App, enables children and adults alike, to write and publish their stories, often in languages in which stories have never been written and published previously. In so doing, the ASb project contributes towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal 4, that is, “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all".

African folklore can be thought of as the most ancient example of an Open Education Resource (OER). The story tellers of old, wanted their audience not only to enjoy listening to the stories, but also to learn some life lessons which were cleverly embedded in the stories. Various social aspects of life are better learnt or passed on from one generation to the other through stories and parables, whether orally or in a written form, rather than more didactically in a formal classroom setting. Some good examples of storybooks  based on folktales on the ASb website , include those narrated by elders in Ethiopia and compiled by Elizabeth Laird. For example, Wardit, the mule, which is available in its original Amharic language. Once published on the ASb website, the open licensing of these stories allows for them to be adapted (to other contexts) and translated by anyone who chooses to do so, into any number of languages. The adaptation and translation function of the ASb website, thus provides the opportunity for storybooks to be made available, free to speakers of a range of African languages, presenting them with a choice of picture storybooks which can be downloaded and read in a digital format or down loaded and printed.

Apart from transcribing traditional folktales, many of the storybooks published on the ASb website are developed in story writing workshops, in classroom, libraries and under trees. ASb Champions working with children and adults in their communities, support groups of children as well as individuals who are inspired to write children’s stories. The work of various ASb Champions working in a range of Sub – Saharan countries has resulted in stories being written in, or translated into languages like, Fongbe and Gongbe (Benin), Tiv (Nigeria), Mampruli (Ghana) and Oshikwanyama (Namibia), all languages in which little or no literature had previously been published.

Once created and uploaded onto the ASb website the storybooks can be accessed and enjoyed by individual children or in groups. Depending on the context, the storybooks can be read in a digital or in a printed format. Using a data projector, the books can be projected onto a screen/wall of a classroom or library with a group of as many as 100 children together, or they can be read individually on the ASb Reader App on a phone/tablet. Storybooks can also be printed as single titles or made into collections and printed as anthologies.

But above all, it’s about the enjoyment and the enhanced learning that takes place when children write and read in their ‘mother tongue’. As a teacher, working in some of the remotest parts of Kenya, I remember, the countless occasions on which my students asked me to let them explain things in Kiswahili, a language they were more familiar with, than English. But even Kiswahili was not the “mother tongue” to many of my students. In Kenya, as in many other African countries, where English is the official language, but where there are many indigenous languages, I would let students speak to a classmate in their shared mother tongue to enable teaching and learning to happen more effectively. Language has the power to limit and exclude and it also has the power to broaden opportunities, promote creative expressions and foster social belonging. To this extent, the ASb project’s promotion of access to children’s storybooks in a range of indigenous African languages, is helping to foster equality and inclusion in African children’s literature space.