Crafting stories in the mother tongue

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By San Yoyo

Pidgin English may be widely spoken in some parts of Nigeria, but it is not in any renowned genre in the realms of African literature. This indigenous language – an amalgam of corrupted English and local languages – earned a space at the just concluded Story Making West Africa which showcased indigenous literary works in the West African sub-region.

It was an initiative of the British Council Nigeria in conjunction with African Story Book Initiative. Participants were drawn from Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Ghana and Senegal.

Mimi Werna, a young upbeat Nigerian mother and a rookie writer, displayed how an indigenous language could influence young impressionable minds through the rendition of her story book themed Magical Rainbow River. The reading of her book in English was a fleeting moment, but reading the same book in pidgin version, roused the audience – an assemblage of writers, illustrators, arts critics, British Council officials and sundry literature stakeholders from other African countries who converged on Abuja for the one-week boot camp.

Other interesting stories were rendered by Aisha Nelson, a young Ghanaian who read from her storybook entitled Aku The Sun Maker and a Nigerian, Mohammed Saleh who read from River of Blessings. Every story had its significance and morals, essential ingredients for captivating young minds who were the primary target of the literary initiative. Aisha’s Aku The Sun Maker, read in English and in a Ghanaian local language, speaks to resilience, confidence and strength of character. Mohammed Saleh, a polyglot, rendered his River of Blessings in English, Hausa and French. It is a story infused with the essence of unity of purpose; an allegory of how animals of different breeds, surmounted difficulties through collaboration and support to reach their goal.

The import of visual as an influence of learning was not lost on the organizers. Each writer was also paired with an illustrator, who through creative illustration brought the stories to life. Those paired with the writers of the winning entries were: Edwin Irabor for the Magical Rainbow River; Idowu Abayomi for Aku the Sun Maker and Awwal Sakiwa for the River of Blessings.

Lisa Treffry-Goatley, the publisher of African Storybook shared an inspiring story African Unity Race, hinting that several of the stories developed at the workshop would be considered for publishing, not just in English but in local languages as well.

Louisa Waddingham, British Council’s Director of Programmes, said the workshop had contributed to the organisation’s agenda to help improve learning outcomes for students by creating accessible, low cost reading material in languages that they are most familiar with, and helping to build foundational literacy skills.

She said: “It demonstrates our commitment to promote the arts, and mother-tongue based multilingual education in sub-Saharan Africa. I am pleased to see representatives from so many languages across Nigeria and from Sierra Leone (where I had the pleasure of living in); and from Ghana and from Senegal.

“For the British Council, this is an excellent opportunity to facilitate connections and collaboration across the sub-region and to help West African writers and illustrators contribute to the production of these storybooks at any African Storybook reading level, in indigenous languages and English.”

Cross-section of writers, illustrators, trainers and British Council officials at the workshop on Story Making West Africa

Mohammed Ahmed, the Director of Schools Education and Society, said development of indigenous languages was attracting national and international attention, pointing out that the plan by the Ministry of Education to convene a meeting this month on how language could be used more effectively to support learning outcomes for all students was a right step.

“The other thing that we also have to reflect on is the work that is being done by development partners in Nigeria,” he said. “So the UK Department for International Development and US Agency for International Development are providing resources in schools, working with state universal basic education boards, working with UBEC to provide learning resources in indigenous languages in schools. And I think all those collaborative efforts are really a sign of awareness that learning, especially for younger students is best in the language that is most familiar to them.”

Mrs. Dorcas Wepukhulu from Kenya, who is a Partner with African Storybook and a Development Coordinator for the project, said all the writers in the camp showed commitment to literature in Africa and displayed sense of collaboration, making the workshop unique due to its diversity. She believed that the workshop helped the writers acquire literacy in English and other languages they are familiar with for communication. “And we have seen the result from our pilot project, some of the kids who were not confident to stand and read when they are given the text can now gain confidence and interact in the language they are familiar with, and gradually they learn to read in English and other languages.”

Writing for children was the main focus for the writers and the illustrators who were guided by coordinators and trainers. “Through working with them one on one and through constant feedback, it was so incredible the way they lowered their level, to coming down to the level of a child. In some of their feedbacks, they said they didn’t know that writing for children could be such a difficult task.”

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