The Present Situation For Writing And Publishing Creative Writing For Children In Africa

Nancy B. Alston

Africa has been marked by a dearth of books, especially picture story books for younger children reflecting an African environment both in textual context and illustration. Problems militating against a rapid growth in writing and publishing for children in Africa include the following:

(1) The bulk of reading matters available to the African child are textbooks rather than books for pleasure and enjoyment.

(2) Most children’s books are still imported. Such imported works are mostly insensitive to local culture, and unreflective of the social realities of the African child and his aspirations.

(3) Not enough African published children’s books are available.

(4) If they are available the illustrations in them are either

(a) of poor quality

(b) not in full colour

(c) Do not have beautiful dust jackets.

(5) And if they are in full colour, and of good quality, they are either much too expensive or for an elitist few and well beyond the reach of most African children, especially those in the rural areas.

(6) Most serious African authors do not bother to write for children since it is not accorded the same status as writing for adults.

Africa has very little concern for written literature. Even Nigeria which is rich in award-winning authors is marked by neglect of her authors. Writers are seldom as footballers are. Hardly any foundations exist to boost the creativity of African writers. Prizes for literature are also in short supply. Book Development Councils seem to be either non-existent or collapsing except in Ghana. In Sierra Leone and the Gambia its absence is still being bemoaned. Whereas in Nigeria where one was once set up to develop indigenous book publishing, it hardly made any impact until it was swallowed up by the Nigerian Educational Research and Development Council. In Africa generally adults seldom read children’s books – not even parents. Compared to the over 2,000 titles published every year for children in Britain, the output in Nigeria is hardly up to 60.

In spite of the over 100 publishers in Nigeria the situation remains bleak for children’s literature. This is due mainly to their textbook orientation which makes them lazily rely on a captive school market. It has been proven that if only African children had access to more books they would read outside the classroom. An illustration of this fact could be seen from the 1985 Ife Book Fair where the Children’s Literature Association of Nigeria (CLAN) held a special exhibition of books

Visitors to that stand were fascinated by the colourful poster illustrations of folktales decorating the wall, the top and back of shelves. Some even wanted to buy the poster-sized illustrations made by a very gifted woman artist from the Nigerian television authority. The festive air given to the stand by the balloons decorating it along with the colourful posters attracted many children. There was the astonishing sight of three children of varying ages reading one picture book at the same time, visibly very fascinated by this picture book entitled No Bread for Eze by Ifeoma Okoye and published by Fourth Dimension in Enugu. It was one of those picture books where both story and illustrations were ideally integrated. It was about a young boy Eze who loved bread and could not eat enough of it. He wanted bread all the time. So his exasperated parents made him eat nothing but bread. Eze was at first very happy. Nobody was pressurizing him to eat nourishing food. But he soon grew tired of eating bread all the time and pleaded with his parents to give him other types of food. But they would not relent. So Eze became tired of bread and stopped eating. He grew hungry and weak and could not even play football with his friends. In the end his parents relented and Eze began to enjoy a balanced diet, having learnt that boys shall not live by bread alone. This emphasizes the importance of illustrations in children’s books, for those children were fascinated not only by the story of Eze but also by the imaginative and sometimes humorously drawn pictures. If children are to acquire the reading habit, they must be given attractive books which also mean well-illustrated books. Even a two-year old baby can enjoy looking at a picture book. Picture books could indeed be expensive to some extent if one insists on printing in four colours which is ideal as could be seen in the lavishly illustrated folktale The Drum specially written for children by Chinua Achebe. But even line and wash drawings could be so well drawn that they too could be captivating.

Half-tone illustrations as in Adagbonyin’s The Singing Ashes (1981) can also be effective due to the masterly shading of the artist. Even one-colour children’s books could infectiously hold young readers as does Just in Case (1983) By Sandra Slater, illustrated by A.L. Satti.

Other good picture books include the colourful Amina the Milkmaid (1988) by Fatima Pam illustrated by K. Ofori Pam, a Ghanaian, The First Coin (1989) by Mabel Segun illustrated by the same artist and How the Leopard Got His Claws (1982) by Chinua Achebe and John Iroaganachi. This has two illustrated versions, the one in full colour being by Adrienne Kennaway.

Although Nigeria has a few good illustrators, most of the good illustrations there have been done by expatriates. It appears that many Nigerian illustrators cannot draw children’s faces and have problems with interpreting texts. In order to remedy these defects, CLAN has run two illustrators’ training workshops with UNESCO funding and published a book on Illustrating For Children (1988) edited by Mabel Segun.

But this problem can only be solved permanently by integrating text and illustrations, a feat best accomplished by an author illustrator The cost of publishing in full-colour could even be reduced through co-publishing with, a number of publishers working together to increase print runs and reduce the unit cost of books. Sometimes a book is published with texts in different languages using the same colour illustrations. In Nairobi, five publishers across Africa including Nigeria’s Daystar Press came together in 1983 under the auspices of the World Association for Christian Community (WACC) and co-published a number of children’s books in full colour under the imprint DUCCA.

The dearth of good children’s authors is also militating against the publishing of children’s literature in Africa. For, writing for children, is much more difficult than writing for adults, for not many adults can either enter into the child’s world and interact with him with understanding and lack of condescension whilst adapting the contents and language of her writing to the child’s age, experience and background… A good writer for children must understand a child’s psychology for the story not to ring false. Good children’s literature arouses a child’s imagination and extends his horizon giving him a knowledge of the past in relation to the present and imbuing him ideals and values necessary for national development. Work ethics. selflessness, loving relationships, acceptance of responsibility are amongst the values which can be so taught, not in a didactic, off-putting manner but with subtlety so that children can be mobilized towards national and international development. Good children’s literature develops a child’s creativity and inventiveness without which a people cannot hope to move into the technological age.

Good literature can also give a child personal identity in a continent which has been subjected to cultural imperialism through mass importation of foreign literature. Achebe does this through his well-written folktales such as The Flute, The Drum and the earlier How the Leopard Got His Claws co-authored with John Iroaganachi and published in 1972 by Nwamife Publishers. The latter was one of the first children’s picture story books published in Nigeria and remains one of the best and most successful ones, with an East African Publishing House. Chinua Achebe is quoted as saying it.. ‘Is one of the best things I have ever done.’ Mabel Segun does this through character-building books such as Olu and the Broken Statue (1985).

In neighbouring Ghana many other problems including the country’s balance of payments difficulties which cause constant short supplies of essential raw materials and
spare parts to repair defective printing equipments. Amongst The Ghana Publishing Corporations’ substantial number of children’s books published, one of the earliest and most attractive was Mesheck Asare’s picture story book, Tawia Goes to Sea published in 1970. This was probably the first African-published children’s book to gain world-wide recognition and it was also the first book from an African publisher to be translated into Japanese. Better still was the welcome news that a Ghanaian children’s book was the winner of the 1982 Noma Award. This $3,000 prize went to Mesheck Asare, for his engaging picture story book The Brassman’s Secret published by Educational Press and Manufacturers United of Kumasi in 1981.The jury in selecting it were impressed by its’ exciting and unusual children’s story, beautifully and imaginatively illustrated by the author, himself an artist, to bring out important aspects of his Asante culture. They also thought it remarkable that a book of such high quality was produced under such difficult conditions then prevalent in Ghana. Asare has like Achebe been rehabilitating the African child’s mind through literature designed to reveal to him his cultural heritage through all these fantasies as well as the adventure book Chipo and the Bird on the Hill and his more recent Sosu’s Call

Another G.P.C. item Mercy Owusu-Nimoh’s The Walking Calabash published in 1977 was singled out for ‘Honourable mention’ in the first Noma Award for Publishing in Africa competition

Inspite of its many problems Ghana manages to maintain a lively and enterprising local book industry. Firms such as Aframs Publications, Adwinsa Publishers and the Wielerville Publishing House are among those whose list includes occasional children’s books.

In East Africa, the bulk of the children’s book publishing output is from Kenya. The East African Publishing House in Nairobi in particular, has an extensive list of picture-story books illustrated in full colours, as well as readers, and traditional stories and folklore. Especially appealing is their series called ‘Lioncubs.’ Charity Waciuma, Pamela Kola, Asenath Odaga and Cynthia Hunter are amongst the most prolific authors in the EAPH list. Another prolific children’s writer is Barbara Kimenye who publishes with the East African branch of Oxford University Press, some titles one of which is Martha the Millipede recounting the story of Martha who fed up with getting sore feet decided it was about time to get herself some shoes.

The Kenyan Literature Bureau taking over from the East African Literature Bureau has produced a few children’s books among which is Ray Prather’s A is for Africa A Colouring Book for Africa which contains forty full-page drawings depicting the various people of Africa, accompanied by small maps showing their geographical locations.

Foremost Kenyan writer, Ngugi Wa’Thiongo has joined his Nigerian counterpart, Achebe, in writing and publishing his first children’s book but unlike Achebe in his native Gikuyu language but later translating it as The Great Hero and the Flying Bus.

In Southern Africa, Zimbabwe Publishing House have already built up a most impressive collection. A government supported private commercial undertaking, it publishes books on education, politics, literature and creative writing, Zimbabwean history but with books for children featuring prominently. It sponsored a splendid magazine for children ANTS started by a panel of Zimbabwean children but which I have learnt with much regret has stopped publishing more than 15 years now.

Other publishers catering for children here are Mamba Press and the Zimbabwe Literature Bureau, the latter having a wide range of materials in Shona and Ndebele comprising novels, poetry, short story booklets, children’s comics and material for literacy development.

In Malawi another firm actively developing children’s books in the indigenous languages publishes the popular publications of Limbe.

In Lesotho the church-sponsored Mazenod Book Centre similarly has a substantial list of books for children in African Languages,

In Zambia and in Tanzania some children’s material is coming from the National Educational Company of Zambia and the Tanzania Publishing House.
In South Africa initially the small local market did not make it feasible to publish local children’s books in English. English children’s books written with a South African background or by a South African were usually published in England. Jock of the Bushveld (1907) written by Sir Percy FitzPatrick, is generally regarded as the first English South African children’s book. .This was published in South Africa during the second half of the twentieth century. Only during the 1970s did local publishers realize the need for indigenous children’s books in English and start exploiting the market. This change was brought about single handedly by the writer Marguerite Poland with her Mantis and the Moon which was published in 1979. The rise in price of imported children’s books made the publication of indigenous material more competitive. The political changes during the 1980s then brought improvement of the quality of education of African children and the decision that they could receive tuition in English. This created a large potential market for English children’s books in which some publishers specialize. At the end of the 1980s English children’s books were prominent in dealing with the political and socio-economic conditions in the country. The English children’s book was more explicit with regard to criticism of apartheid. with authors like Lesley Beake, Dianne Case and Lawrence Bransby taking the lead.
As a result of the small local market, few original books with full colour illustrations are published. Collaboration with overseas publishers and the simultaneous publication in various indigenous languages is often the only way to make a publication viable. Also, publishers of children’s books concentrate on the publishing series, beginner and second language readers.
The change in government in the country and the elevation of the African languages to official status, one should have expected would have led to the development of children’s literature in the African languages, but for several reasons this has not yet occurred. The rise of African consciousness and nationalism in the battle against apartheid has rather led to the identification of English as the language for education and freedom. For many African children prefer to read in English, and many African authors prefer to write in this language. Also only a small minority amongst African children read for recreation. Some publishers nevertheless try to publish children’s books of a high quality in African languages, but due to a shortage of indigenous writers most books are translations from English or Afrikaans.
This suggests the problem of language as another factor hindering the rapid development of children’s literature in Africa. The language problem posed by writers being forced to write in foreign languages which they have not really mastered raises the issue of writers being trained to write in their indigenous languages. But then this creates yet another problem as some of the authors of books written in African languages cannot distinguish between concepts for adults and concepts outside the experience of children. Similarly they use an off-putting adult language.

There is also an imbalanced attention to the various ages of childhood. For far more books are being written for the middle-aged (8-12) while very young children remain largely neglected. Very few books for adolescents have been written. One is Angi Ossai’s Tolulope (1979). Another is Joined by Love by Joy Ikede. The Kenyan Asenath Odaga’s work Jande’s Ambition is about choice of career which should be a prime concern at that age. Macmillan’s Pacesetter Series also appeals to young adults but their works are said to be of varying quality, featuring crime, espionage and love tangles.

There is in addition the chronic absence of children’s magazines in most parts of Africa. In Sierra Leone the attempt by The Sierra Leone Writers and Illustrators to establish one did not survive its second issue. But the invaluable role they could play in inculcating the reading habit in the child because of their wide variety of subjects, the form of presentation and the fact that children love to read what their peers have written and thus start having similar creative impulses is recognized.

Most parts of Africa are not book-friendly for there are few if any bookshops where the African child can buy books. Neither is his access to libraries especially so in rural areas easy. School libraries are a phenomenon of a distant past. Where public libraries are still available and functioning their children’s sections are poorly housed, poorly furnished, poorly ventilated, poorly equipped, poorly staffed and poorly sited. There is therefore an obvious need for thorough overhauling of library services in Africa. And efforts should be made to make it an essential public service from the central on to local government levels so as to give every community the opportunity of accessing and growing on books. Similarly every school should have a library that is well stocked and well-equipped.

The distribution of books is another area of difficulties. For this is usually left to private enterprise although some governments purchase textbooks in bulk to distribute to schools. Wholesale bookselling is best handled by private entrepreneurs trained in the discipline. But the main problem hindering this is that the book distributors tend to restrict themselves to using distribution methods more suited to countries with a high level of literacy where the wider citizenry is already converted to books. In Africa, publishers and book distributors cannot afford to wait for buyers to come to them. They must rather take their products to the people wherever they are. In Tanzania, therefore, enterprising publishers take books to the local markets. There shoppers mingle with books and enjoy lively discussions with the publishers on all aspects of books. The huge sales at these exhibitions have proved the usefulness of such innovative activities. This kind of promotion will no doubt create in adults an awareness of the need for literature.

Efforts made to promote and sell books in the West could be extended with adaptations, if necessary, to intra-African book distribution so that print runs will be longer for the prohibitive costs of books to be brought down. Why cannot children in Nairobi, for instance, read literature published by an indigenous publisher in Nigeria? Much is lost through the compartmentalization of African children’s literature. In 1976 an attempt to sell African books from all parts of the continent at the Second Pan African Trade Fair in Algiers collapsed when 4,000 such books had to be brought back because the Algerian government’s imposition of a 120% tax on the books had made them too expensive. Such tariffs need to be removed with communication and transport systems improved to facilitate trans-African movement of books.

The situation however seems poised for major changes with the intervention of a series of bodies and institutions thus complementing the efforts of others such as UNESCO that had been working assiduously in the field. There is a wide network of organizations geared towards supporting the growth of publishing in Africa. One of them is APNET which network exists to help strengthen book publishing by Africans in Africa. APNET has been working closely with the Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA) and has been supported by Bellagio. The Bellagio Group of donors has been exploring ways of improving support for a number of cultural industries, which it is hoped will eventually include African books for African children as there is now recognition among policy makers that culture of which books are an integral part is much of a key to development.

Book Fairs in Africa have been fastly becoming established institutions with a concerted series of initiatives to redressing the otherwise parlous state of books in Africa. The Pan African Children’s Book Fair (PACBF) started in Nairobi, Kenya in 1991 through the initiative of the Foundation for the Promotion of Children’s Science Publications in Africa (GHISCI). The fair has been trying to stimulate a learning environment that captures and nurtures the African child’s inherent qualities of imagination, curiosity and creativity. It has created a dynamic atmosphere to enhance the preciousness of books in the learning life of the child. Through a variety of activities such as art, toys, fun with science, debates, quizzes, creative writing, story-telling, and reading aloud, Kenyan children have come to love and comfortably identify with this event with increasing numbers thronging it every year. In 1994 a children’s library introduced within the fair further whet the children’s appetite by enabling children who could not buy books to have the opportunity to read a couple of books at the fair. Since 1994 the Reading Tent has been a major attraction to all children visiting the fair. This has resulted in other African book fairs widely emulating this innovation. Exhibitors also have been steadily improving their marketing skills thus reaching out to the children in more proactive ways, engaging them into books with new titles introduced. The 1998 PACBK had a spectacular advance with each stand becoming a mini library. Yet another innovation – A Children’s Home Library Campaign – was launched with children responding with tremendous enthusiasm, buying books and promising to start their own home libraries.

The Zimbabwe International Book Fair has been another important stimulant for the development of the book industry in Africa.The1998 fair was of especial significance because its theme and that of the accompanying Indaba was ‘BOOKS AND CHILDREN’
At the sessions of the inaugural Indaba it was emphasized that up to the 1990’s book production for children has been weak if not non-existent in some countries. But since 1987 spectacular growth in children’s publishing, in both European and African languages have been reported. In Kenya, Uganda and Nigeria production has notably increased in the last ten to twenty years. Print runs have also increased significantly averaging 3,000 to 5,000 copies per title with possibilities of frequent reprinting.

This progress has been attributed to the following:

1. The creativity of African publishers enabling them to produce well-made children’s books in terms of content, production quality and price.

2. Continuing increases in state purchases of books for schools and libraries.

3. Appreciable support being provided to publishing and book acquisitions by development agencies, international organizations and N.GO’S.

4. Noticeable increases in sales resulting from efforts publishers are making to promote their books nationally and internationally.

5. Co-operation between publishers and distributors enabling the development of export sales.
But in spite of this difficulties still remain or have been created in the following areas:

1 Wide differences between countries. The situation in South Africa, Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Kenya and Tanzania is very much better than in other countries in their regions. In francophone West Africa, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Mali and Togo stand out clearly.

2 Difficulties in finding good authors and illustrators still persist.
3 Readership is not sufficiently developed, given the level of illiteracy and the lack of a reading culture or habit.

4 Even where a readership exists, its purchasing power is limited. For books is not as high a basic priority as basic needs.

5 The library network is not developed, especially in the rural areas.

6 The distribution network is not developed.

7 The intense political situation in Zimbabwe has negatively affected the most favorable climate created there for the growth of books not only there but the whole of Africa and has robbed The Zimbabwe International Book Fair of its international flavour.

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