Muna Kalati is a fast-growing platform that promotes children’s books from across Africa. This week World Kid Lit’s Johanna McCalmont talks to founder Christian Elongué to find out more…
Johanna McCalmont: Where are you based?
Christian Elongué: Our name reflects our roots: in Duala muna means child and kalati means book. Muna Kalati is officially registered as a non-profit operating from Cameroon but we cover both Francophone and Anglophone countries in Africa.
JM: How did Muna Kalati come to life? Could you tell us a bit about the team behind Muna Kalati?
CE: Muna Kalati is the direct implementation of an action-research project, sponsored by the University Senghor of the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie, into children’s literature in Africa with a focus on the children’s book industry in Cameroon. The research findings revealed the need to set up an online platform dedicated to the promotion of children’s books and a Pan-African network to facilitate exchange and collaboration among children’s book professionals: authors (writers, illustrators), publishers, librarians, teachers, researchers, parents and anyone interested in children’s and young adult literature.
I’m blessed to work with a dynamic, dedicated and diverse team made up of university lecturers, writers, children’s educators and counsellors, humourists, researchers and poets. All are benevolent professionals who are committed to promoting reading in and from Africa.
JM: Could you tell us a bit about Muna Kalati’s documentation work and the Muna Kalati Review?
CE: Information about children’s books from Africa is scarce and difficult to find online. Even when you can find some information, it is often not centralised on one platform but many. Hence, Muna Kalati is systematically capturing and consistently documenting relevant information about children’s and young adult literature and children’s publishing professionals in both Francophone and Anglophone Africa. So far, we have databases on children’s books published in Cameroon from 1932 until 2016 and we are also systematically documenting books from other African countries. Of course, you could imagine that this is not an easy job, hence the need to collaborate with any book professional (publishers, researchers, writers etc.).
JM: How can people get involved?
CE: Authors can contribute to the documentation process by sending their bibliography to us via e-mail (info[at]munakalati.org) or social media, so we can include it in the corresponding country’s database of children’s book. This is very useful for parents and researchers who are constantly looking to Muna Kalati to provide credible information on what already exists within a country.
Publishers can also send us their catalogue of children’s books and those written by young authors under 30. Librarians, reading centre managers, teachers and researchers can also share with us any information worth spreading with our Pan-African network of children’s book professionals. Documentation is a long and studious process which requires the collaboration of everyone, technically or financially.
JM: What other events does Muna Kalati organise?
CE: Concerning contests, we have organised only two so far. Both were online, aiming at promoting reading for kids. But we do hold a monthly knowledge café dubbed Muna Kalati Talks where children’s book professionals discuss issues relevant to the industry and draft practical and actionable recommendations. This year, we have organised four for the first quarter on issues around developing a reading culture in the family, the role of mothers in this process and the contribution of women in the children’s book industry. The session in April looked at the contribution of philosophy to a child’s development and how children’s books are introducing kids to philosophical questions and existential reflections. You are invited to upcoming events later in the year!
Concerning resources, we have databases of African Children’s Books, especially those produced by Africans about Africa. We also have databases with contacts of libraries, bookshops, writers, illustrators and publishers of children’s books in Africa. Professionals are also making use of our online community of practices on Facebook and LinkedIn to make specific requests and collaborate with one another.
JM: What sort of books are the most popular with the children you work with? Are any particular genres more popular than others? And how do children and young adults access books?
CE: The most popular books for the children we are working with, especially during our Reading 4 Pleasure workshops, are those related with identity and educational issues. Children like books that provide answers to the questions they face as they grow up: Why do we have day and night? Why do we have racial differences (Black, White, Indians etc.) Why are animals not talking too? Why do we have social hierarchy and inequalities? So, we usually use books addressing such issues such as: Tortoise and Hare by Omowunni, Stories from a Shona Childhood by Charles Mungoshi or Chinke and the River by the well-known Chinua Achebe.
The most popular genre is folktales. Children and young adults access books especially through local libraries and also via Amazon for kids of middle-class parents.
JM: What sort of books would you like to see published in the future in Cameroon? And in Africa in general?
CE: I would like to see more books with fresh and original perspectives on African history and civilisation within children’s literature. Why? Simply because many young adults and even adults are not well informed about their past and most of the knowledge currently known by most is a product of what is called “the colonial library.” Hence the representation it gives of Africa is neither objective nor correct. Producing more books and stories about past and present heroes and events would build children’s identities and better prepare them for a brighter future. Djehuty Biyong is one of those actively pursuing this objective through his comics, purchasable here.
JM: At World Kid Lit we’re particularly interested in books translated from other languages into English. How important is language when it comes to children’s books published in Cameroon and in Africa more generally?
CE: Cameroon is officially bilingual in both English and French. Some book publishers are producing bilingual children’s books in both languages while others don’t or can’t because of technical and financial implications. However, there are two different developments within the children’s literature history of the country as I highlighted in my book Introduction to Children’s Literature in Cameroon. The children’s literature published in English has mainly been ostracised by Francophone readers and many kids/parents from one language group are not aware of the existing children’s books in the other.
JM: Do you work with other partners?
CE: Yes. We work with the National Library of France through its Centre National de Littérature pour la Jeunesse (Cnlj – Takam Tikou, BnF). They provided us with technical support in the early stages of the project by facilitating access to resources about children’s literature in Francophone Africa. We collaborated with the French Institute on the project Resources Educatives, a research series aiming to develop national policies on children’s books within 6 West African countries: Benin, Mali, Senegal, Burkina Faso, Madagascar and Guinea. We also work with the International Board for Books on Young People (IBBY) that has contributed to the visibility of our network and the set-up of the Cameroon country hub. Locally, we collaborate with the Cameroon Debate Association in promoting bibliotherapy for a hundred internally displaced families, Reading Classroom, Alliance Franco-Camerounaise of Dschang (AFC), Akoma Mba (the only publishing house specialised in children’s books) and many other transnational organisations.
Christian Elongué is an author and researcher. Dismayed by a lack of black characters in books available to African children, Elongué founded munakalati.org in 2017 with the goal of building international recognition for African children’s book authors and increasing access to African children books. In 2019, he authored An Introduction to Children Literature in Cameroon, the first ever survey of the children’s book industry in Cameroon. Prior to that, he worked with the French National Centre for Children’s Literature. As a founding member of International Board of Book for Young People (IBBY-Cameroon), he has also spent several years developing literacy and educational initiatives as a means of empowering children in West Africa.
Stay tuned for a list of Muna Kalati’s favourite books from across Africa – coming soon on World Kid Lit!