Carole Bloch Little Books For Little Hands: Stories Across Africa Project Introduction

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Carole Bloch
Little Books For Little Hands: Stories Across Africa Project


Stories Across Africa (StAAf) was initiated in 2004 as a pan African project which aims to further and support literacy development in multilingual settings through the creation and use of a common written children’s literature. It is a core project of the African Academy of Languages (ACALAN), the official language agency of the African Union (AU) and is coordinated centrally by the Early Literacy Unit of the Project for the Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. StAAf has initiated and hopes to realise the concept of a pan African children’s literature as part of the drive to enable and support ‘reading culture’ development across the continent. A steering committee made up of individuals from Egypt, Ghana, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa have the task of stimulating regional involvement in East, South, West, Central and North Africa, as well as creating contacts in the Diaspora1.

StAAf’s main intentions are to:

  • Develop and support the use of African languages for children in print;

  • Support mother tongue based bilingual education in Africa;

  • Stimulate and support the African publishing industry and African literary and visual artists to create and foster the use of children’s literature;

  • Begin to create a common store of written children’s literature for African children in their own languages by developing at least three anthologies of stories for early childhood, middle childhood and teens;
  • Support possibilities for reading for enjoyment as part of literacy learning and development.

Acknowledging the enormous challenges we face to get children and adults reading on the continent (Triebel 2001, Bloch 2006), our reasoning is that the power of narrative lies at the heart of being human – we put our thoughts and feelings into story form and live our lives through stories (Paley 1990). Literate communities are ones in which reading and writing are used in chorus with oral social and cultural practices as part of regular daily life. We learn oral language and written language in similar ways: by being part of a community of language users (Goodman 2003). It is easiest to learn to read in a familiar language, one which we feel, think and understand in. Moreover, young human beings are well equipped for learning, and this includes their early language and literacy learning (Holdaway 1979). But for their learning to be effective, they need emotional nurturing (Greenspan and Shanker 2004), interactive role models and informally structured print rich environments which encourage both oral and written language use. However, most children in Africa are expected to develop their languages and literacies from early childhood onwards in totally uncondusive learning environments. Among other things, the inspiration and power of stories in picture books and storybooks, both in the ex-colonial and African languages is absent. Below I outline some of the factors that have given rise to this situation. I then describe the process that StAAf has undertaken to create and begin to distribute a pan African set of Little Hands books.

The Necessary Intertwining Of Language, Literature And Pedagogy

Professionals in the two domains of literature and education are centrally concerned with the way that children are exposed to literacy in Africa: one involves a socio-cultural focus on children’s literature (both oral and written) and the other involves pedagogical understandings about how children learn and the related teaching methods for reading and writing. Though both the literature and education domains ultimately have the common goal of enabling and nurturing literate children, until very recently, there has been little or no conceptual or practical synergy between them. While it is not within the scope of this article to discuss in detail the various historical and political factors that have contributed to this (see Bloch 2006), in order to understand the significance of initiatives such as the Stories Across Africa Project, I now sketch some of the factors which I consider critical. They involve language medium, theoretical understandings about learning and teaching methods - all inter-relating and essential foundational considerations for educational success.

Generations of African children have been educationally compromised by colonial and post-colonial school language policies which have forced the use of essentially unknown languages in the classroom at the expense of their own mother tongues (Alexander 2002, Bamgbose 2000). This has contributed to the damaging neglect and underdevelopment of African languages for high status purposes, particularly as languages for reading and writing2. Moreover, instead of using the great oral storytelling tradition as a bridge to written language learning, stories have been largely swept into forgotten corners of school classrooms across the continent under the ‘modernising’ wave of Universal Primary Education. Intending to bring equal life chances for all African children, behaviourist skills-based teaching methods for initial literacy teaching inherited from Europe were adopted. Such methods, adapted to the variety of often difficult settings in urban and rural Africa, promoted the view that learning to read and write requires first the learning and practising of sets of discrete and decontextualised skills before any authentic reading or writing could occur. Children apprenticed into the regular interests for and uses of reading and writing in literate homes might slow down for a while under such a challenge, but informally, at home, they would usually be exposed to the kinds of engagements with print that most of us need to ultimately make sense of and master reading and writing. They develop essential ‘concepts of print’ (Clay 1991) in profoundly meaningful ways. But children from orally oriented homes are simply not able to do this, either at home, or at school. We continue to face this situation today. Misguided teacher training and curriculum implementation programmes for early literacy have been generally transmitted to teachers in languages that they themselves do not know well enough to use creatively and effectively for academic purposes. They then expose children to mind -numbing, rote learning of disconnected skills, perhaps first in a familiar language, but always moving towards the inevitable ‘switch’ to English, French or Portuguese.

Expected to learn to read and write at more or less the same time as their peers in the North, many African children attempt to do so without a real conception of why people find it useful or enjoyable to read and write or why they should bother to learn3. Storybooks (in any language) have long been labelled and viewed of as ‘supplementary materials’4 by the educational establishment, deemed irrelevant for the literacy learning process. Many players have contributed to this situation: publishers as well as educational officials at different levels of the system have exacerbated things by over emphasising the development and promotion of the use of textbooks containing teaching methods that at best offer restricted language texts.

The small and struggling children’s literature movement in several countries since independence has been contributed to by some of Africa’s greatest writers like Ngugi wa Thiong ‘o and Chinua Achebe (Montagne 2001). But the concentration has always been on developing storybooks for children at an age when they could already read and sustainability is a major problem. With the demise of Apartheid in South Africa, the last decade has brought a recognition that there are serious inadequacies with the way that most young children are being taught literacy and an exchange of international theoretical and practical insights on early language and literacy has led to opportunities for change in the South African school curriculum (South African Department of Education, 2004). Specifically, conceptions of literacy as a social practice (Street 1984), emergent literacy (Hall 1987) and whole language (Goodman 1986) in early childhood are finding their way into curriculum documents (Western Cape Education Department 2006). The Western Cape Education Department is currently implementing a pilot phase of mother tongue based bilingual education in sixteen schools, with debates taking place about issues such as the importance of young children learning in their mother tongue or a familiar language, the benefits of reading for enjoyment, and the need for appropriate storybooks in relevant languages. This is spreading to and reinforcing complementary initiatives in other parts of South Africa and in other African countries.

Starting Small

Between 2002 and 2005, PRAESA carried out a ‘Culture of Reading’ project, which included developing some forty titles in English, Xhosa and Afrikaans, as part of a drive to meet the literacy and literary needs of children, teachers and parents in the multilingual school and community settings of the Western Cape. The project helped us both to highlight the many challenges we face in book production for multilingual contexts, and to contribute to and explore ways of overcoming these (Bloch 2005). A publications that was initiated then, called Little Hands, was modeled on the 10 cm x10 cm Pixi Books, popular with young children and those who read with them in Europe for over fifty years. These and other publications were distributed and used in communities , preschools and classrooms schools in the Western Cape between 2003-2007 in three languages (Edwards 2008).

Arising from these experiences, and connecting into a pan African initiative by language activists and scholars in Africa on the intellectualization of African languages (Alexander 2003), StAAf was initiated to extend and deepen the culture of reading work on the continent. When the African Union declared 2006-2007 the Year of African Languages, StAAf decided to commemorate this by making a pan African set of sixteen Little Hands Books. Given time constraints, the steering committee selected eight books from the original PRAESA published Little Hands books, and a call was sent out via The African Publishing Network (APNET) and other national and local channels for eight new text-light little stories.

Writers were invited to submit texts in any African language accompanied by a translation in English or French. Dealing with the multilingualism inherent in work of this nature is not easy. Though the steering committee members between them speak a range of languages and other colleagues can be called upon to assist with other languages, it is difficult to escape the need for a common language text as a base from which to produce different language versions. When there was a translation into English or French, it was sometimes a poor translation and did not always give a good sense of the original text. At the same time, many writers tended to submit a story either in English or French and this was often obviously additional language writing for them. The fact is that most African adults have not experienced learning to write creatively in an African language and thus do not feel comfortable to do so when offered the opportunity.

The response to the call was fair, but most of the texts submitted suggested little experience in writing creatively for the age range5. In fact several of the submissions were more appropriate as stories for older children. This was not a surprise because for all the reasons I have already raised, the notion of ‘text light’ picture books for very young children has only just been born in Africa6. Writing for a specific age group requires empathy and insight apart from other things such as a familiarity with the world body of relevant children’s literature.
Creating Appropriate Little Books For Little Hands

StAAf’s work is informed by the view that it is critical to help children from diverse societies and communities grow up with the understanding that there is a common African heritage for them to share, respect and cherish at the same time as all of our unique attributes and elements are valued7. A set of criteria was drawn up by the steering committee guided by the regional working groups, to inform and guide story selection. The criteria that were agreed upon, for the Little Hands books as well as the future anthologies, were that as a whole, the selection of stories should arise from and give an African point of view, have definite literary merit, reflect diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity etc, challenge discrimination, include humour and avoid being didactic and preachy and include not only ‘problem literature’ but fantasy and experimental, non-linear texts too. In addition, we considered issues relating to style, theme, visual appeal and clarity.

Several issues relating to cultural and social differences arose as we developed the set of pan African books. I give a few examples below to provide a sense of these.

Translation and terminology development: Listen, written in South Africa is about some animals and their sounds.

Front cover in Kiswahili and illustration examples from Listen, (first published 2002) in English and Kiswahili by Carole Bloch, illustrated by Jean Fullalove.

We pondered over what to do about the fact that not all animal sounds have equivalents in the various languages.

In English, crickets ‘chirp’, mice ‘squeak’ goats ‘bleat’, lions ‘roar’.

In Kiswahili, creatures seemed to ‘cry’ or 'sing' or 'call‘.

In Amharic, lions ‘roar’ but crickets didn’t ‘chirp.’8

Because stories have not yet been written widely for very young children, agreed upon ways of writing the actual sounds – as in Goat says “Bleh” or Cow says “Moo” have not necessarily been reached in some languages. It was agreed that terms can be borrowed from closely related languages where appropriate, creative solutions are both desirable and possible and where relevant the translators should invent appropriate terms and sounds. Thus, in Kiswahili, the cricket made the same sound as in English, but not so with the mouse, while in Kinyarwanda, both sounds were portrayed differently from the English.

Urban and rural life experience and cultural mismatches: Let’s Go! is written in South Africa. In it a boy waves goodbye to a balloon and a girl smells dirty socks.

Front cover in isiXhosa and illustration example from Let’s Go! (first published 2002) by Carole Bloch, illustrated by Thembinkosi Kohli
Through discussion, agreement was reached that these ‘mismatches’ are not likely to be perceived of as harmful or offensive and could be seen as opening a window for a young child into new knowledge and other ways of being.
Zebra and Crocodile written in Tanzania is a story about friendship betrayed.

Front cover of Zebra and Crocodile by

Joshua .S. Madumulla, illustrated by Arnold Birungi
A controversy arose over the cover illustration because of an unintended omission to show and discuss the use of flowers as a symbol of friendship with all of the people who should have been consulted. This was only noticed once the book was being designed. One strongly held view was that it is not a cultural practice for Africans to give each other flowers, while another equally strong view was that modern Africans do. Acceptance that this mismatch would not harm or offend combined with time constraints to get the set of books finished kept the cover unchanged.

Two is a little story written in South Africa about a little boy who is accompanied by a dog through his day.

Cover from Two (first published 2002) in Kiswahili, and illustration example by Carole Bloch, illustrated by Richard MacIntosh.
Original and transformed illustrations.
In one illustration of the original 2002 book, the dog licks the baby’s head. In another controversial illustration, though the dog is on the armchair next to the child, it was accepted as ‘just passable’. However we decided that a dog licking a baby’s head could easily be viewed as culturally unsound and the dog was shifted to a more suitable location.
Behavioural norms: Titilope’s Silly Game is a story written in Nigeria. It tells about young Titilope’s foolish desire to play with wasps. Titilope doesn’t listen to the advice of her elders, and gets stung.

Front cover in Kinyarwanda (draft) from Titilope’s Silly Game by Sunday Okoh, illustrated by Felix Seminega.

The original manuscript ended with all the children laughing at Titilope for being stupid: “There were many bumps on Akpaku’s face (the character was originally a boy called Akpaku). At school the next day, all the children were laughing at Akpaku’s funny face”. Would the message be that we condone humiliation as a way to improve behaviour? The editorial decision of the steering group was to have a gentler ending with Titilope herself recognising her own mistake, hence, “ Poor Titilope’s face was covered with bumps. ‘I’ll never play with wasps again, said Titilope’.”

Cultural variation and commonality: Fruit Salad, written in Rwanda, simply names several fruits that are liked by various children.

Cover of Fruit Salad in Portuguese and last page by Suzana Mukobwajana and Fortunee Kubwimana, illustrated by Felix Seminega
When discussing illustration briefs, although the characters were all conceived of as Rwandese, a decision was made to use the book to depict a range of children, whose names linked them to different parts of Africa from Egypt to South Africa. Thus Aïsha loves dates (Arabic), Phakamani likes paw paw (Zulu/Xhosa), Muvara likes oranges (Rwandese), Juma likes mangoes (Swahili),Kwesi likes bananas (Akan) and so on. The illustrators challenge was thus to depict each child in a scene that might evoke a feeling of their region without creating stereotypes.
A contrasting approach was taken with two other stories. With Six little beetles, written in Egypt, the visuals were intended to give a sense of North Africa, while Orange, written in Ethiopia has a setting that is meant to be reminiscent of a large African city like Addis Ababa.

Cover of Six little beetles in Portuguese, written by Nadia El Kholy , illustrated by Samantha van Riet and Orange in Amharic, written by Michael Daniel Ambatchew, illustrated by Lizza Littlewort.

In dealing with names in the different language versions of the books, it was decided that as a rule, we should keep the name of the original, existing characters. E.g. ‘Ali’ and ‘Titilope’ would remain such – as it is in life, people usually only change their names if they are oppressed in some way. At the same time, there are differing views on this and once the stories went for translation, they sometimes took on a life of their own, with one or another translator expressing adamantly that a name needed a spelling adaptation. For example the original name ‘Beruk’ became ‘Beruki’ and ‘Mimi’ became ‘Mimii’ in Kiswahili. In another case it was decided that the name ‘Raeez’ would be impossible to pronounce in Portuguese and so he became ‘Rafique’.

Cover of Raeez writes in Cinyanja and Portuguese by Carole Bloch
Nice and Clean written in Ethiopia is a little story about keeping clean.

Amharic cover and illustration example of Nice and Clean (2007) written by Tesfaye.G.Mariam, illustrated by Alzette Prins

The challenge of where to situate a story was resolved in this case by a decision to use animals common to many African settings instead of human beings thus allowing children anywhere to identify with the actions.

Publishing And Distribution Challenges

Skill in layout and design for multilingual texts is essential in a project of this nature. With the Little Hands, a textless art template is first created for each book; the English language version then gets designed and set. After that each language is overlaid onto the art template. There is a constant layout challenge for the designer because of the varying lengths of translations in different language versions. It is difficult for a person who doesn’t know many or allof the languages she is working with (as is the likely present day scenario for most graphic designers) to deal with many different languages simultaneously - and mistakes easily happen. For this reason, sufficient time needs to be given for several sets of page proofs to be checked by language specialists in each language before going to print.

A practical challenges relating to making a set of sixteen very small books is how to present and package them. With the first Little Hands books produced by PRAESA, bookshops and libraries told us they were too small to be housed by them. Much thought thus went into discovering an economical and environmentally appropriate way to package the books for easy distribution, and positive reception in communities, libraries or bookshops. The solution was a well-designed and attractive box, to contain the books, display the language and give a brief description of the project. We decided to put the front covers of all the stories on the box, with the list of titles to encourage young readers to match the cover and title with the book inside.

Front cover of the Little Hands box in English

To further the aim of supporting the capacity of African publishers, co-publications with African publishers are being brokered by StAAf and by the South African publisher, New Africa Books. The intention is that participating publishers collaborate on a large print run, made up of several languages thus benefiting from the low unit cost per set of books. They are then able to sell their books for profit. New Africa Books is presently discussing co-publications with several African publishers, including Bakame Publishing House (Rwanda), Sub Saharan Publishers (Ghana). Shama Books (Ethiopia), Elias Modern (Egypt),Sasa Sema (Kenya). Future print runs of the books will include a royalty agreement between StAAf, who holds copyright of the books and the publisher/s. Any StAAf royalties will be dedicated towards ongoing children’s literature development, to fund the production of further translations of existing titles or to create, produce and distribute new storybooks9.

Although co-publications are a vital aspect of developing publishing capacity and output on the continent, it is not enough to rely on such a financially ‘unsupported’ option due to the enormous challenges facing publishing in Africa - ranging from ones related to all the issues I have already discussed in this article which all add up to a ‘no market’ situation, to considerations such as the fact that South African publishers are in a position to sell books at a higher unit cost than many other African publishers can. Very little will improve if the expectation is that publishers should carry all financial risk in an extremely negative environment for book buying. What will help is to get unit costs as low as possible, by ensuring very large print runs. We are thus convinced that a medium term necessity is to have a supportive client-based publishing strategy to achieve this end.
PRAESA’s previous Culture of Reading project provides an example of such a strategy which involved donor support to enable client-based publishing. Funds were made available to guarantee the buying and distribution of agreed upon print runs in particular languages from collaborating publishers, thereby reducing the risk for the publishers and motivating them to print more books, and also to publish in additional languages (Bloch 2005, Edwards 2008). The client chooses whether to give away books or to sell them at an affordable price, creating a mini ‘book-flood’ effect (Elley 1991) and helping to stimulate an expectation and demand for more story books from teachers, librarians, caregivers and children. This is a model which will help get Africa reading and writing and one which StAAf is pursuing.

Thus far, the Little Hands books have been translated into twenty four languages. Books have been sponsored by organisations such as the African Union to celebrate the Year of African Languages (Arabic, Amharic, Kiswahili, English, French and Portuguese), Progresso in Mozambique has translated and ordered books for their bilingual education work ( Yao, Cinyanja, Emakhuw, Makonde Kimwane and Portuguese), private donors have sponsored books to go to Burundi and Rwanda via Concern in Kinyarwanda, French and English) and support has been given by private donors and Rotary International for books in isiZulu for the Family Literacy Project. All of these initiatives are heartening, but small in scale.


The work of StAAf is just beginning10. What we have achieved thus far, is to demonstrate to ourselves and to others that with appropriate financial support, together we have the capacity to meet the conceptual and concrete challenges involved in producing appropriate pan African reading materials for young children. We can succeed despite the major socio-cultural and experiential differences both at the level of the adults participating to create the books and at the level of the children and caregivers who are the recipients of them. It is inspiring to note the impressive sense of motivation, hope and goodwill expressed at the various workshops and meetings we have held. We have made progress in deepening the interest for and skills and capacity of a network of professionals working in children’s literacy and book development for multilingual contexts. We have a growing group of people who show a willingness to cross the boundaries that exist between educational and cultural bodies and organisations in the interests of developing literacy-related habits on the continent. I conclude by reiterating what I consider to be a most hopeful sign: the understanding is deepening that teaching skills is only part of learning to read and write - a ‘culture of reading and writing’ where people read for enjoyment and come to have personally meaningful reasons to read and write and the development of literate environments that support literate habits are of equal importance. This perspective brings the story telling heritage of Africa back into prominence, and offers us the chance to put children’s literature at the heart of education, where it can be used to build bridges from oral to written language and to normalise and enrich pedagogical endeavour and the lives of children and adults alike.

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1 These are Michael Ambatchew (Ethiopia), Joshua Madumulla (Tanzania), Jakalia Abdulai (Ghana), Suzana Mukobwajana (Rwanda), Nadia El Kholy (Egypt).

2 A major exception is the continuity of the tradition of reading in African languages for Christianity, established by missionaries in various parts of the continent. Writing has been harnessed and used for powerful religious purposes to such an extent that it is as if “literacy comes directly from God and not via the compromised agency of missionaries” (Hofmeyer 2005:3).

3Most recent evidence of this is the news released in November 2007 that South Africa’s Grade 4s and Grade 5s came last in a study of 40 countries that took part in the Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS) 2006.

4 Supplementary materials are defined by UNESCO (Montagnes 2001:4) as “including work books, reading programmes or schemes, children’s fiction (easy readers, stories, plays and anthologies), children’s non-fiction, audio tapes, video tapes, multimedia learning packages…”, i.e. anything that is not a text book.

5 This is the reason why several of the stories ultimately selected were written by StAAf steering committee members, as these are among the relatively few people who have been most involved in the domain of children’s story writing on the continent.


 It reflects my own experience in 2000 -2002 with the First Words in Print project in Cape Town, which was, to my knowledge the first attempt to produce books for preschool age children in South Africa. Most of the stories submitted tended to be too advanced for the age range, or unimaginative and didactic, and lacking in the kind of rich rhythmical flow of language and creative interaction between text and illustrations that attracts young children. As writers develop experience in writing for very young children, the appropriateness of the books improves.

7 This is not to deny the relevance of culturally or even linguistically specific literature.

8 Joshua Madumulla in Tanzania clarified this for Kiswahili and Michael Ambatchew for Amharic.

9 The Little Hands Trust was established in 2007. It is dedicated to developing and supporting the making and promotion of children’s literature in Africa.

10 StAAf is now preparing three anthologies of stories for children in early childhood, middle childhood and for teenagers which we anticipate will be published in 2009.

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