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Afro Story: Africana at the push of a button

The Afro Story App, which brings together 50 texts — many of them classic Africana — to your phone, aims to have a profound influence on the way literature is consumed.

Born from conversations between public-health specialist John Ashmore and Hombakazi Nqandeka, the app curates texts that are in the public domain because of lapsed copyright, making them available for easy consumption through an Android smartphone. 

The app is downloadable at a cost of R43 on Google Play. Users can pay using a credit or debit card, or even with airtime.  

“It was lockdown and they were discussing the fact that people in the Eastern Cape, especially in the rural areas, did not have access to public libraries and books and, at the same time, there was a wealth of — not necessarily new books — but classic African literature that can be made available to people in a more

accessible way than the present,” says Ryan Fortune, who is also a partner in the app.

Nqandeka, who grew up in the Eastern Cape, has had to go through great lengths to access books that spoke to her experience. It is an experience common to many black people, especially those who grew up under apartheid.

“The first book by a black author that I read, I was probably about 19 years old,” says Fortune. “When I read Writing Black by Richard Rive in my first year in journalism school, it really had a profound impact on me. After reading that I went on a whole journey. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X; I was reading Alice Walker. It just opened these floodgates of experiences relevant to the ones I was having growing up in apartheid South Africa. Why I believe this app is co critical is that there are thousands of young people out there who still don’t have access to literature that speaks to their lived experience.”

The app, available to Android devices for now, contains books ranging from Thomas Mofolo’s Chaka and Sol Plaatje’s Mhudi to African American literature like Matthew Alexander Henson’s A Negro Explorer at the North Pole

According to the Wikipedia entry that serves as the introduction to the download, Henson, a veteran of seven voyages to the Arctic, is best known for his participation in the 1908-1909 expedition, and was said to be the first of the party to reach the North Pole. 

Judging by the number of children’s texts such as Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, as well as other classics such as Animal Farm, quite a bit of consideration has been given to how this app might be used to promote reading to family members of different ages. 

“We are speaking to the department of education in the Western Cape to try and get it into schools”, says Fortune. “We all know the power of literature to help young people develop a sense of empathy, to inspire imagination and to dream bigger dreams for themselves. I really credit the books I read as a teenager for all the choices I made as a young person.”

Although the app doesn’t take up too much space on your phone, is straightforward to navigate and has the type of content that can awaken a young mind to the vastness of the Black Atlantic, some work still has to be done in terms of its presentation. 

In its current format, it may just attract those who already have a predilection for reading, and would have a tough time competing for screentime given the options of today’s teenagers. It’s a bit of a double-edged sword, as it is this bare-bones presentation that makes it easy on the phone.

According to Fortune, these are all aspects being worked on, and the available texts are also being updated periodically.

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Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo
Kwanele Sosibo is the editor of Friday, the arts and culture section of the Mail and Guardian.

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