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(The Conversation) African stories to get and keep kids reading during school holidays

Holidays are a great occasion for reading, whether kids are doing so alone or a family is sitting down together with a book. But what do you do if the bookstore doesn’t have books in your language, or they’re just too expensive? This is often sadly the case in Africa, a continent that’s home to more than 2000 languages.

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

The African Storybook has collected more than 2300 stories in 62 African languages. They are all free for download or printing, and offer fascinating insights into how people on the continent tell stories that explore sometimes tough themes and ideas.

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.

1. Leaving one home for another

Children’s books can tackle big themes in the simplest ways. African Storybook: Catherine Groenewald (CC-BY)

Holidays with grandmother is a story many children and adults can identify with: leaving home in the city to visit one’s grandparents and the countryside.

In rapidly urbanising Africa this is a familiar theme for many, as the older generation often stays behind while the younger generation looks for work in towns and cities. But family ties are strong, and visits to the ancestral village are cherished. In Holidays with grandmother, Odongo and Apiyo enjoy taking care of animals and playing in the bush, and of course their grandmother’s lovely cooking and chai.

It is available in English, Kiswahili, Lunyole, Ng’aturkana, Oluwanga and Sepedi.

2. The moral of the story

Traditional African stories often convey a moral lesson or caution against greed and other vices, such as the Ghanaian story Anansi and turtle. 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?

African Storybook: Ingrid Schechter (CC-BY)

Other stories are far more serious, like Tingi and the cows. It is based on real events and is about soldiers entering a village as seen from the perspective of a young boy.

On the surface there is little drama beyond soldiers stealing cows and a boy hiding. But as we all know soldiers plundering villages is often far more serious than the theft of cows. Tingi and the cows invites the reader to think – and talk – about what happens when soldiers march into a village.

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.

3. Reading can be silly and fun

Adults may be concerned with teaching moral lessons and warning against dangers and transgressions, but children often prefer stories that are just funny, even silly or nonsensical. In Mr Fly and Mr Bighead the two 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!

Children love stories that are silly and nonsensical. African Storybook: Joshua Waswa (CC-BY)

Similarly, in The adventures of Supercow, a cow lives an ordinary life by day – well, not that ordinary for a cow, since she spends her days flying a kite and kicking a ball. But by night she is a supercow, saving lives and fighting crime.

This story has been translated into 21 languages, matched by only one other story on the African Storybook. This is A very tall man, and it’s another funny story that children will love. Although the number of translations is a weak proxy for demand, it hints at which stories are more popular.

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, Danish, Esperanto, German, Hindi, Jamaican Creole, Japanese, Mandarin, Nepali, Norwegian (bokmål and nynorsk), Persian, Russian, Spanish, Swedish and Tagalog – 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 yourself. This is not only possible with the African Storybook, it’s 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.

My favourite picture-based story is the brilliantly simple The hungry crocodile. In merely six concise sentences, which have been translated into six languages, the author Christian G. tells a story:

Pictures can tell a thousand words. African Storybook: Wiehan de Jager (CC-BY)

The hungry crocodile
Once there was a very hungry crocodile.
He searched for food slowly and quietly.
And then…
POW!!! The crocodile strikes!
After that he is no longer hungry, and he is happy.
Until he gets hungry again.

Adapting a story is an easy way for children or adults to start making their own stories. Holiday time, an adaptation of Holidays with grandmother by three Ugandan teachers, is one example of this.

Stories can serve many purposes, and with the African Storybook and Global African Storybook Project, African children stories are more accessible than ever before – in African and non-African languages alike. Happy holidays and happy reading!

This article was published on The Conversation.