#ReadingAfrica – African Kid Lit & Africa’s Many Languages

Today for #ReadingAfrica Week, Johanna McCalmont takes a look back at the World Kid Lit Live panel discussion on African Kid Lit and Africa’s Many Languages. The recording is available to watch here.

by Johanna McCalmont

A look back at World Kid Lit LIVE: Ayò Oyeku in conversation with Edwige Renée Dro, Cédric Christian Elongué Ngnanoussi & Sandra Tamele.

As many of you know, Project World Kid Lit hosts regular events with translators, authors, publishers and other literary experts: World Kid Lit LIVE, streams live on Facebook and is available to watch again later on YouTube. Each virtual panel showcases children’s and YA books from a different region or looks at an aspect of publishing children’s books in translation. Following panels on Arabic literature, Central European literature, and translating kidlit from the publishers’ and translators’ perspectives, it was time to visit Africa to hear all about African Children’s Literature and Africa’s Many Languages. When Ayò Oyeku, Edwige Renée Dro, Cédric Christian Elongué Ngnanoussi and Sandra Tamele accepted our invitation, we knew it would be magical – and magical it was!

Brimming with enthusiasm and extending a very warm welcome, Nigerian children’s writer and publisher Ayò Oyeku kicked off the event with a round of introductions. He was excited to give the floor to Mozambican publisher and translator Sandra Tamele, adding that it was “amazing to see writers on the continent dedicated to children’s literature.” Next up was writer, translator and literary activist Edwige Renée Dro from Côte d’Ivoire, a woman who Ayò explained is “championing literature and pushing the narrative forward so that our voices can be heard across the world.” And finally, Cameroonian literacy advocate and Muna Kalati founder Cédric Christian Elongué Ngnanoussi who shared with us how he promotes African children’s books.

Coming from a country with over 300 ethnic groups and languages, Yoruba-speaker Ayò was keen to find out more about the range of languages spoken elsewhere – and how each of the panellists said ‘child’ – or omode – in their own language. Sandra explained that even though she had been born to parents from different tribes (Machangana and Kimwani, her native language was Portuguese. Mozambique, however, has 43 languages: 41 Bantu languages, Portuguese and Mozambican sign language, so there are many words for child, like criança, abatwana and ndjingiritanne. “Africa is a myriad of languages, ethnicities, and together we have our role to play in making these stories available to all kids regardless of language,” she said. There are 63 languages in Côte d’Ivoire. Whilst Edwige grew up speaking Yacouba at home, she identified more strongly with Bambara spoken in the region where she lived as a child, so she taught us the word den. Cameroon has over 300 indigenous languages and the word for child in one of Christian’s languages, Douala, is muna. He added that blended languages like pidgin English could be key to promoting bilingual publishing.

All of the panellists agreed that language informs and influences how they see the world today. Local languages are valued highly in Cameroon and speaking Douala with his grandmother had helped Christian stay connected with his roots, giving him a sense of belonging within his community. Edwige saw languages as a way of opening up to other people, and less as a way of identifying where she came from. Sandra felt that speaking a colonial language as a mother tongue had left her with a thirst for other languages – she can sing in the languages of her parents but doesn’t know what she’s singing. Perhaps this sense of limbo was what made her pursue a career in translation and interpreting.

Whilst most African countries are home to multiple languages, content for children is usually only produced in a handful of languages, such as Hausa, Igbo and Yoruba alongside English in Nigeria, for example. With 41 languages and a small population of 30 million, Mozambique only has one book translated into all languages – the Bible. The French spoken in Côte d’Ivoire is not like the French spoken in Paris, explained Edwige. She rejected the term national/local language and added that she doesn’t feel like she speaks a colonial language: “We’ve removed colonialism [and] should own these languages like our own.” Books published in some languages don’t have a large readership in Côte d’Ivoire because although speakers understand the language, they can’t read it. Christian noted that even though there is a main language in each region in Cameroon, those languages are not used in the education system. French and English are seen as the languages of opportunity and there is no government support for adding local languages to the school curriculum.

What should writers and publishers on the African continent do to ensure that African children see themselves in the books they read asked Ayò. Avoid fables and stories where children are always sitting beside their grandmother in a village without electricity said Edwige! She’d love to see more stories that reflect her own daughter’s reality as an urban child, stories like Marguerite Abouet’s Akissi. Sandra is also a huge Akissi fan and has published the comics in Portuguese and Makhuwa. Editora Trinta Zero Nove has also experimented with digital formats, for example adapting a picture book into a video with narration and sign language interpretation. When publishing in local languages, it’s important to share content across various platforms, such as Whatsapp or YouTube to allow children to listen to content in a language that they may not be able to read in print.

Ayò was keen to hear Christian’s thoughts on ways to create more relevant children’s books. First, the story must be culturally relevant and answer some of the questions children might have. Africans haven’t told their children enough about their own history or environment – it’s important to realise how the books children read shape the way they think about their own country. Second, give children the opportunity to write. Their perspective and language would help make the stories relevant. And third, make the books available to children. Christian mentioned the lack of official policies to support publishing in local languages but is aware of the challenges, such as: printing issues due to a lack of standard typography for some languages; low financial return for publishers due to limited number of potential readers; and the marginalisation authors experience when choosing to write in a local language.

Through literary translation at Editora Trinta Zero Nove, Sandra hopes to see more literature circulate across Africa. She is currently drawing on her own funds, tools and team to bring books from further afield to kids in her own community. “It’s important we have translators willing to try to find new voices and give them a voice in translation in their territory.” Edwige’s contribution to the Afro YA anthology Waterbirds on the Lakeshore was highlighted by Ayò. She set up 1949 Books, a feminist library, as a place where African women can read Black women writers to hear what they say about themselves. It also gives her a feel for the stories people are most interested in – a great way to help her decide what she might translate in the future.

The hour was almost up, but there was still time left for a few questions from the audience.

The panellists had a few suggestions on ways to better circulate African literature without government support: call each other to get projects off the ground; find informal ways to send books and documents to other areas; look at co-publishing to enable publishing in a different country. Sandra also has lots of ideas and plans to get kids more involved in publishing their own stories with workshops for children. She hopes they will help children see a different future for themselves as they exchange stories, work with an illustrator and writer, connect with a school in Brazil and eventually publish a book of their own.

The conversation could easily have lasted all afternoon. With the passion and energy that Ayò, Christian, Edwige and Sandra have for African children’s books, the future looks bright for African Kid Lit!

Africa isn’t just home to zebras and giraffes – it’s home to many languages! In diversity we find our strength.” Ayò Oyeku.

Watch the panel here


Further reading

The Need Of Writing And Publishing Children Books In Indigenous African Languages by Christian at Muna Kalati.

Afro Young Adult Fiction Project– Water Birds on the Lakeshore – review by Johanna McCalmont

Looking for some great African Kid Lit suggestions? We have African books list and reading maps here in our Resources section, and ou can search World Kid Lit blog by language or by country.

The speakers

Ayò Oyeku is a talented children’s writer from Nigeria. Ayò’s titles include The Legend of Atajoa and Queen Moremi Makes a Promise. In 2018, he founded Eleventh House Publishing with the aim of working with new writers who have something unconventional to say. Follow him on Twitter @ayo_oyeku.

Edwige Renée Dro is a writer, literary translator and literary activist from Côte d’Ivoire. In 2018, she facilitated the creative writing workshops of the Afro Young Adult project and translated stories into English and French. Edwige has led creative writing workshops for Bakwa and the Commonwealth Foundation, among others. Follow her on Twitter @DroEdwige and @1949Books.

Cédric Christian Elongué Ngnanoussi is an author and researcher from Cameroon. 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’s 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 Books 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. Follow him on Twitter @lafropolitan and @MunaKalati.

Sandra Tamele works as a translator and interpreter in Maputo, Mozambique. In 2007 she became the first published literary translator in Mozambique. In 2015, after a seven-year hiatus from literary projects, she designed and sponsored the annual literary translation event that led to the establishment of Editora Trinta Zero Nove. In 2021, she was awarded the London Book Fair Literary Translation Initiative Award. Follow her on Twitter @TrintaZero


Johanna McCalmont

Johanna McCalmont was born in Northern Ireland and now lives in Brussels, Belgium where she works from French, German, Dutch and Italian. Her translations have been published by the New Books in German Emerging Translators programme and No Man’s Land. She loves connecting writers with audiences when interpreting at literary festivals and has a particular interest in African literature. www.johannamccalmont.com