Stories in mother tongues matter

Last week, American actor Michael B Jordan caused a furore when, in a Vanity Fair interview, he bemoaned the nonexistence of black folklore. 

The Black Panther star either did not know that they do exist or he could have been complaining that too few appear on mass media. His critique spoke to me because of something I have been working on with friends from across the continent.

Some months ago, Maimouna Jallow, a storyteller from the Gambia, decided there was a need to make more folklore available for children. She started a project to reimagine folklore or to create new traditions. The result was a collection of 10 stories from 10 writers from eight African countries.

She sent me the stories and my inner child giggled as I read them. So I was delighted when Jallow helped me to make my first venture into publishing by giving me East and Southern African publishing rights. Lola Shoneyin, another friend and a writer I admire, who has also ventured into publishing, got the West African rights.

I have been a critic of South African publishers in particular and African publishers in general about how they sometimes fail to look beyond their own circles to create a wider audience for their works. In this new venture, though, I am learning that publishing isn’t as easy as it appeared when I was on the other side as a writer. And, like any worthwhile artistic venture, it is expensive. But I am keen to do it, and do it well, even if I only ever get to publish this one book.


Because it is a children’s book, an important issue for me has been translating. Too often I have been on platforms that bemoan the shortage of storybooks in the mother tongue. Indeed, one of my books, Refilwe, an African Retelling of Rapunzel, is still popular with many South African children because, beyond having a dreadlocked Refilwe who lives in a cave on top of a mountain, Jacana Media had the book translated into all the official languages. One of my joys as the author of that book is seeing a child in the Eastern Cape talk about it in isiXhosa or children in the Free State talk about it in Sesotho.

It is this joy that I wanted to share with children that I seek to do as a publisher of reimagined tales in the languages of Southern and East African countries. I have completed a Shona translation and am waiting for the completion of the isiXhosa and Kiswahili translations. I am hoping these three will be out in December at the same time as the English version. I dream of having the book translated into other languages from Chewa and isiZulu to Luganda and Kinyarwanda.

My model for funding the translations has been simple. I approach those who make a big noise about the absence of material in their language and I ask them to find someone to fund a translation, editing and a modest print run.

What has taken me aback is just how much a lot of moneyed Africans of all races talk about the importance of something like this but seem to have closed wallets when asked to do something about it. I have also been surprised by the generosity of others, Canadians in particular, to fund translations into languages that have nothing to do with them apart from making them feel good. This is unfortunate because it shows that, even when a project benefits us, we cannot walk the talk.

I am not entirely pessimistic. I am hoping that somewhere out there is someone who thinks the book is worth being translated into their language so that children in villages can read the same stories as children whose parents go to bookshops in Johannesburg, Harare, Gaborone, Lusaka or Nairobi. Equally important, I hope that there is someone who believes visually impaired children should be able to read the stories in Braille.

In my wildest dreams I hope that Michael B Jordan will adapt some of these stories for broadcast, be it radio or television, because representative stories matter.

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Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner
Zukiswa Wanner (born 1976) is a South African journalist and novelist, born in Zambia and now based in Kenya. Since 2006, when she published her first book, her novels have been shortlisted for awards including the South African Literary Awards (SALA) and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize.

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