Are children’s books on Africa a poisoned gift?

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Children’s books in the West
Children’s books are a European product, which historically emerged during the Enlightenment century, when the growing bourgeoisie designated children as a social entity unto themselves. Knowledge had to be imparted to children. The children of crafts people and peasants, however, who were more involved in the adult world, only discovered books as a instrument of learning when mandatory schooling was generalized. It was also at this time that the book became an object of leisure, as well as of learning.
Transmitting knowledge to children in the Southern countries
This does not fall into a generalizable model. Countries’ Histories and development are so different that we can only pick out tendencies.
Children in urban zones in Africa follow Western models more every day. School has a significant influence, which breaks with that of the family. It goes without saying that today, books play a role similar to that in the West.
On the other hand, the situation of children in the rural zones is very different.
The example of the Iatmul children
The ethnologist Florence Weiss demonstrates in her study of Iatmul children in Papua New Guinea that they acquire abilities and knowledge by observing, imitating, and participating. It is not, therefore, a question of a knowledge accumulated for future use, as is the case in the West. Parents never doubt their children’s ability to manage to reproduce their work. This confidence in children’s desire to learn may seem a long way off for us, we who generally think that children must be taught, or otherwise they won’t learn a thing. This confidence in their abilities gives the children an assurance which encourages their self-awareness.
Language and orality
Children in countries in the South acquire the knowledge necessary for getting on in life within the family and village communities. In the evening, or during festivities, a complementary learning is acquired through tales and stories, as well as through participation in rituals. It is only in school, in the European sense of the word, that the book appears, which, in this context, is a foreign body. In his novel Maps, the Somalian writer Nuruddin Farah comments about writing: « We know what the invaders of written culture do to people of oral culture when they subjugate them. We know that they impose a law on them which makes it illegal to think of themselves as human beings. This is what the European colonizers did ». Somalia had no form of written expression up until 1972, but , alternatively, the country is marked by a strong oral tradition. Farah’s mother was a poet. She carried her poems with her to the grave. This is an African reality which Europeans find hard to understand.
Specific forms of transmitting knowledge
Is it not normal that diverging conditions influence the contents of a book differently? That the transition from oral tale to its written reproduction takes another path? Kwajo et le secret de l’homme tambour, by Meshack Asare (Namibia), or l’Histoire du petit éléphant by Jean-Marie Adiaffi (Côte d’Ivoire, illustrated by Assane N’Doye), for example, combine object and knowledge, entertainment and narrative, imagination and atmosphere. They reflect a world Westerners are unfamiliar with, and its values, norms, customs and culture. They were written for the children in their countries. But such books are still too rare, and many youngsters never read them. It is vital that they can read and learn to read to find their place in the world and defend themselves. And it is just as important that children in the North learn to open up to new ways of seeing and hearing, discovering an unfamiliar, but fascinating world.
The representation of Africa
The majority of children’s books are produced by the North, even those about the South. The people of the South are clearly denied the opportunity to present their culture themselves. It seems easier to send journalists, photographers, and illustrators to compile reports, as the books have to meet the criteria of the North. They have to be familiar. The representation of a different reality has to meet the needs of the North. It is these same books, however, that are available to African children.
One example is Un pays loin d’ici by the European writers Nigel Gray and Philippe Dupasquier (Gallimard-jeuness, 1992). They compare the lives of a young African villager and a young European city-dweller, describing their daily existences. At first, it seems like a great idea. However, the images imply that the two youngsters have equal access to material goods, and similar cultural values, stopping them from representing the real differences in lifestyle. The Amis de la Joie par les livres newsletter, Takam Tikou, lists the criticisms made by African bookshop owners: errors made in the representation of objects or scenes, the contrast between a rich and fascinating world and a pretty shameful reality. This kind of book doesn’t compare, it judges.
Right from the outset of colonization, Westerners have thought it necessary to educate the people of the South according to the criteria of the North: European writing, history and geography, rather than their own cultures. A sense of the validity and value of their culture has been lost in the process.
The Kenyan Ngugi wa Thiong’o cynically describes what a class is in Kenya in his book Njamba Nene and the Flying Bus: « Mr Kigorogoru said to one of his pupils: « You can’t even speak English. You only speak Kikuyu or Kiswahili or some primitive language. When are you finally going to learn to express yourself in a civilized language, such as English, French or German? »
Most Africans understood what has happened to them a long time ago, but the economic conditions stop them from reacting radically to Western cultural hegemony. A large proportion of African secondary school text books still come from France or England. A university degree can only be obtained in a European language.
In an article published in Kalulu News (published by the CHISCI, Council for the Promotion of Children’s Science Publications in Africa), the Kenyan Henry Chakava suggests, however, that changes are taking place. He refers to the end of the tunnel. Book publishing is taking root. Associations of writers and illustrators are emerging. The APNET, an African network of publishing professionals, has strengthened and widened its field of action to new countries. The IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) helps authors and publishers make fruitful contacts with the North. It nonetheless seems to remain easier for the people of the North to send specialists to analyze, explain, show, teach. The Egyptian children’s novelist Mohyeddin Ellabbad thus declared after one meeting: « They are not interested in learning our History, they don’t expect to be able to learn something from us. They want to be allowed to speak about us. They think they can teach us things we don’t know so that, when we have advanced, we will be in their image! »
Books from the South aren’t and should not be the copy of books from the North if they want to reach their audience and to take their cultural specificities into account. Such a development can only take place in the countries concerned.
When these books reach the West, they may appear to go against our norms of content and illustration. They require that we rethink the relation to the Other. In the West, we tend to want to explain, to analyze, and to understand everything. Can’t we accept not understanding or explaining everything, without that stopping their being a profound reason for us not understanding? And can’t we take that as the opportunity to think differently and in new directions?
This is a prerequisite for North-South co-productions, for expanding the Northern readership of books from the South, for fruitful exchanges at seminars, and for a greater African presence in Western bookshops. In a nutshell, progressing from a cultural poison to a knowledge, an acknowledgement, of the Other, taking cultural diversity into account.

Adapted by Olivier Barlet from a German article published in Etudes Germano-Africaines, nº 12-13, pp. 133-137///Article N° : 5413


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