Wednesday, July 1, 2009

"And what about books in Swahili for our children to read" by Young Kimaro, columnist, the Daily News in Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania

Young Kimaro writes the "Development with Commonsense" column for the Daily News in Dar Es Salaam. Her articles are informative, rich with food for thought as well as pragmatic solutions. An excellent example: Ms. Kimaro's proposal for "science stimulus packages" for secondary schools in Tanzania. See my previous post for a link to that article.

I asked Ms. Kimaro if she had written additional columns on education and reading -- and was delighted when she sent me several more to share.

This is the first of four columns I'll post here. Please feel free to write a comment after reading.

"And what about books in Swahili for our children to read"
by Young Kimaro
Development with Commonsense column
For January 31st issue of the Daily New

“You goofed in your last article,” chides my good old friend Teben. “Of what use is saying all those nice things about reading when that’s out of reach of so many people in Tanzania? Don’t you think the majority of Tanzanians don’t read because they don’t have anything to read?” Teben’s of course right. In Tanzania, books and even newspapers are hard to come by outside major urban areas.

It’s a complex issue. I was sidestepping it by touching the easiest facet, those who have access to books and yet do not read. Now that Teben has forced the issue and she won’t let me get away with it, so tackle it I must, perhaps in bite-sizes starting with children’s books.

I remember one time Teben wanted to buy books as Christmas gift for all the children of Tanzanian staff at her embassy. She scoured around Dar es Salaam for children’s books in Swahili, colourful books that children would find irresistible, books with large prints and short simple texts that make reading fun and not a chore for the young.

It was so hard for her to find books in Swahili to begin with and the few that came close to what she was looking for were expensive. Books for teenagers … well they were so dull and uninviting. She ended up abandonning the idea altogether.

How can this be? If we want a reading culture to develop, our children have to get into the habit of reading from very young age. But how can they if they don’t have books in Swahili? Instead of lofty speeches shouldn’t Government officials pay attention to how books can be made available? OK, it’s not the Government’s job to publish books. Isn’t it its job to be a catalyst to help it to happen? But instead it may have discouraged it.

The Governmnet has allowed the language issue to drag on unresolved for years. The possibility that we might switch out of Swahili to English rears its head every so often, often enough to discourage publishers from investing in books in Swahili. They won’t risk it if their market could be wiped out overnight with a stroke of pen. Can’t blame them.

Even if the language issue were resolved today, it will take time for creative authors and illustrators to come along in sufficient numbers. There’s nonetheless plenty to do in the meantime. We could tap the classics in world literature. No, I don’t mean translating the original texts. That’s an enormous task that requires not only the ability to translate but also literary skills of highest order in Swahili itself to do justice to those masterpieces.

Translating abridged versions of these classics though, and some of them are already trimmed to barebones for young children, would be not be hard to do.

Reading an abridged version of “the Tale of Two Cities” by Charles Dickens in Swahili, our children will witness how absolute power in the hands of a few in France before the French Revolution created an overly indulgent ruling class that was so wrapped up in privileges and self-importance that it had no feeling for the plight of the poor, hungry and angry masses.

Children will learn that democracy had a violent birth in France, that it rose against the backdrop of an over-worked guillotine that came swishing down time and again, dispatching many among whom was Marie-Antoinette who thought cake should solve the hunger problem of the masses.

Shakespeare’s plays have already been recast into short stories. Charles and Mary Lamb’s “The Tales of Shakespeare” is much read by children in England. Those too would lend well to translation.

That would acquaint our children with Hamlet’s excessive ruminations that rob him of the ability to act. They will see in Macbeth the destruction that one can bring on oneself by failing to curb blind ambition. They will revel at the timeless romance of Romeo and Juliet and grieve over their death that shouldn’t have been.

What if these tales of Shakespeare were in Swahili, illustrated in very African fashion with colourful kitenge and kanga designs as backdrop?

Lift up your vista, publishers. Go invest in books in Swahili, big time. Let our stores overflow with them so that our children can read. It’s not as risky as you think. The market for books in Swahili stretches beyond our borders and that’s your insurance. Look at the Swahili speaking population in parts of Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Burundi, Malawi, Comoros, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique, even Somalia and Sudan if they weren’t fighting. Don’t their numbers add up to a sizable market, all there for you to tap?

Think of it. No policy-maker could rob that from you with a stroke of pen unless, unless … exporting books in Swahili is banned. Oh, oh ….

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