It’s one thing to know how to write, it’s entirely another to think, talk, and laugh in a child’s voice. What does it take really, to create stories for children?
Date was March 11 and I was in a taxi bound for Bon Hotel Stratton in Asokoro, Abuja. There I was to meet with nineteen other writers and five illustrators. Mission: to create stories for children in English and an indigenous language. I was excited, and understandably so.
Earlier, I had tried to pack as light a luggage as possible. A small traveling bag had my clothes and other things. My backpack, dear ancient companion, had my laptop, notebook, pen and several other items.
The application that earned me participation at the writing residency had been an interesting one. It was a workshop called Story Making West Africa, sponsored by the British Council in collaboration with African Storybook. I was asked questions that took me back to two books my mum had bought for my seventh birthday. One was bright red, about a baby elephant who hated to bath. The other was about an antelope who loved to dance. I still remember the central characters of these two books. Baby elephant learned to keep clean the hard way and little antelope had to learn to be patient for the party to begin.
On my first day at the workshop I discovered how privileged I was. About a thousand applications had been received and twenty-five of us had sailed through. Two wonderful resource persons, South Africa’s Lisa Treffry-Goatley and Kenya’s Dorcas Wepukhulu, both from African Storybook, tutored and guided us till the very end.
Learning and writing
One of the first things we learned at Story Making West Africa was that we certainly couldn’t write for ourselves. Also, that our work would have to fit into different levels for children. Hard as some of us tried, it was just difficult not to think about that at the creating process. But our tutors were patient. While epukhulu showed us how African Storybook website functioned, Treffry-Goatley chiselled at our work. I mean, I had never written with an editor at hand to give me immediate feedback. This was the case here.
After putting finishing touches to our rough work, we read aloud, one writer to the other, and it was interesting hearing how awkward some words were and how punctuations were missing. We sometimes instantly found reasons to pause and make corrections, or brood over our handwritten or typed stories. Was it ever going to be perfect?
By Wednesday, we were all set to read our stories to the entire room. There were folklores with animal characters and stories about how the rainbow came to be. It was interesting listening to everyone read aloud. Then the comments, contributions and arguments poured in. One of the things we had to do before then was analyse other books from the African Storybook website. We were quick to see the flaws, strengths and weaknesses of what others wrote. Now it was time to examine each other’s’ work, and we did, bearing in mind that writers and readers after us will also pore over it.
By this time, the illustrators were already getting anxious. It had mainly been about us, the writers, from the onset, how to write, and later, make page breaks for them, the illustrators. So, when they were handed in five stories to start working on, it wasn’t short of a herculean task. They were to produce twelve pages of illustrations for, at least, five stories. Some of them stayed shut in their hotel rooms for almost an entire day.
Okay, I must confess, I had not written a whole article in Hausa for years. Most of my writings included brief text messages and chats on social media. But speaking and writing in the language had always been part of me. So, when the templates (where we could write in both English and an African indigenous language) were emailed to us, I was excited. I simply copied and pasted my work in English and went on to translate into Hausa. This was easier to do now that I had the template. There was my story in English on the right side, and my translation space on the left.
My work, just above a hundred words, was ideal for level two readers, based on African Storybook standards. Level one stories (known as First words) required a word count of one to 11 words per page. Level two (First sentences) needed 11 to 25 words per page. Level three (First paragraphs) 25 to 50 words per page. Level four (Longer paragraphs) 50 to 75 words in a page. Finally, Level five (Read aloud) should consist of 75 to 150 words in each page. This was how it worked.
It was amazing discovering how I could cut down on text or add some to meet the requirements for a Level two story. For me, this was one of the most exciting parts as I sort to find words in Hausa that could sufficiently serve as translations from English without changing entire meanings.
Friday, our last day at the residency included a number of activities. First was the race to finish work on our final drafts in both English and an African language. Our deadline was one o’clock that afternoon, Treffry-Goatley had said. There was also a lot of photographing going on up till the time the official closing ceremony began. Dignitaries from the British Council arrived and so did the press, and it was soon underway. Three writers were chosen to read from their works, alongside their illustrators. The artworks were still a work in progress by this time and the projector showed sketches as they read.
Mohammed Sale (Nigeria) read in English, Fulfude and French. His tale was a cry for unity and involved animals swallowing each other as they made the rigorous journey to ‘the river of blessing’. This writer pointed out in his story, how humans can learn from animals and live in unity to achieve a common goal, after all, in the end, each animal vomited the other when they got to their destination.
The other two writers, Mimi Emelia Werna (Nigeria) and Gyening Agnes (Ghana), aside English, read in Pidgin and Ashanti Twi respectively.
The birth of African Storybook
African Storybook was founded out of a need to provide open access to picture storybooks in a variety of African languages for children. Today, on its website, there are stories in tongues such as Acholi, Hausa, Igbo, Afaan Oromo, Afrikaans, Alur, Arabic, Asante Twi, and many more.
When the African Storybook concept was developed by South African Institute for Distant Learning (SAIDE) with some input by Wepukhulu, a digital solution was reached. “In this way, educators and thereby children, could access materials to develop their literacy skills,” Wepukhulu said. So, in 2013 the African Storybook started with partners in South Africa Kenya, Uganda and Lesotho, and in 2014 the website was launched. In 2017 there was an expansion out of the four pilot countries to include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Zambia, Ghana and Nigeria. In some of these countries, African Storybooks are being used, even though the facilitators are not there.
Why the project is relevant
British Council’s Director of Programmes, Ms. Louisa Waddingham pointed out that the council works to support schools, teachers and students learning in schools. “One of the issues we have discovered in our work, is that there aren’t many books in schools for the children to learn to read from, and for teachers to teach,” she said.
Ms. Waddingham explained that there’s also a perspective that children learn better when they are taught in a language they already understand, usually their mother tongue. “That doesn’t exclude introducing English later on in their education, but we believe in this way, they would have a good foundation. So, there are two things combined that drove us to look for innovative ways to help children learn. We like the idea of creating books and telling stories.
“The success of the programme has proved that it’s actually quite simple to do. It was a five-day workshop and we saw three stories illustrated. we needed specialists to introduce the concept to us. I am not saying it’s easy, but it is not as difficult as we might think. It has also shown that it’s possible to get the stories published in a very cost-effective way. This is really important because many writers put off writing because they can’t publish. Story Making West Africa shows us that you can do it in a very accessible and efficient way. It encourages more people to write and read.”