Talking Drums

The West African News Magazine

Writing for the young in Africa

by Dr. A. B. Assensoh

"An Overview of the Importance, the Perils and the lack of Writing for Young People in Africa." - a Paper read by A. B. ASSENSOH at the International P.E.N. annual conference in San Marino, Italy, May 27-June 1, 1985.
Generally, literature for young people often suffers from varied universal problems and shortcomings. Consequently, writing for the young ones in many Third World areas - including Africa - faces what lona and Peter Opie profoundly described as "peculiar difficulties" in their lucid joint introduction to the section on early children's books contained in New Cambridge Bibliography of English Literature.

In an effort to offer an explanation for the usual "peculiar difficulties" which invariably confront all types of writing for either young people or children, per se, Gerald Gottlieb, the Curator of Early Children's Books at the famous Pierpont Morgan Library in the United States, lamented that "it is a melancholy fact that insufficient numbers of scholars have given insufficient amounts of attention to the problems of children's books". Additionally, commenting on the in- adequacy of tools for the production, procurement and preservation of literature for young people, Gottlieb further stated, inter alia: "And it is an even more melancholy fact that the supply of tools we have at present is woefully inadequate".

While writers in the developed nations of the world are currently stepping up their efforts in the production of literature for young people, their colleagues in Africa - who, in comparison, are fewer in numbers seem to be relenting on their known laudable efforts in this direction, but for very cogent reasons.

For example, when Ms Virginia Haviland delivered her Anne Carroll Moore Lecture in her capacity as the Head of Children's Book Section of the UK Library of Congress, she underscored unequivocally that she was happily eyewitnessing an upsurge of activity at the Library by scholars who were carrying out research in children's books. Yet, it is still deemed much more lucrative and honourable by some authors in Africa to utilise their already limited resources to produce literature of importance to adult readers but not to young people.

The "stiff" and advanced English language in which some African authors write and the subject-matter treated often amply demonstrate that such writers never had young people - or children in mind as part of their patronising and potential readership.

However, if our adult populace were to abide by the adage that charity begins at home and, also, to accept that today's children are tomorrow's leaders, then there is every reason to emphasise that writing for young people generally is very serious business. This, in my candid view, is particularly so in Africa, where the literacy rate is below an appreciable level and, therefore, every effort must made to ensure that first-rate literature is produced and made available for the exclusive use of the younger generation.

An authoritarian state is like a magnificent galleon with all sails set-beautiful to behold. The difficulty is that when the galleon hits a rock, it sinks to the bottom. Democracy, in contrast, is like a raft. It never sinks but your feet are always wet

Indeed, it is an undeniable fact that whenever adult readers peruse a book, they can readily appreciate and subsequently commend its author. However, when it comes to the essential task of helping to mould characters and, above all, to influence the future literacy direction of the young ones for the common good, African writers should re-dedicate themselves to the task of allowing part of their precious time, energy and resources to be used in producing quality literature for the continent's young people. Such an effort may not instantly bring fame and monetary rewards but, in my opinion, it is worth the effort if the destiny of the African continent were to be left in the hands of enlightened men and women.

To a great extent, writing for young Cameroon, or in Nairobi, Kenya". people in Africa can be a full-time job and, if well done, a lucrative one as well, yet many successful writers do not see it that way. This, as a result, accounts for the scarcity of literature for young people on the continent. A sad reflection of this state of affairs in Africa confronted me when I recently attempted to record the names of Pan- African writers of literature for young people who were listed in the 1507-page Twentieth-Century Children's Writers..

The volume, edited by D. L. Kirkpatrick, was published by St Martin's Press Incorporated of New York. To my surprise, only Peggy Appiah of Ghana - who is British by nationality and Nigeria's Mabel D. Segun were conspicuously listed in the reference book together with some of their published works as writers of literature for young people in Africa.

Of course, there are other African producers of literature for young people who, basically, hail from all regions of the continent but, as experience may dictate, such writers are probably noted for only their literature for adults. Consequently, given the limited scope of literature for young people, it is not fair for adult Africans to claim that today's children are not accustomed to avid reading because they are lazy. In response to such a generalised accusation of the young people of Africa, one of the continent's prolific writers, Kole Omotoso of Nigeria, succinctly stated recently: "It is not that people do not read. They do read. It is what they read, what is available for them to read, this is the problem".

Additionally, in defence of the fact that the young and old people of Africa are equally anxious to read, a Hans Zell editorialist was quoted by the London-based West Africa magazine as underscoring the following: "Certainly people in urban communities, and thousands of young school-leavers above all, are hungry for reading material That people are eager to read must also be evident to anyone who has gone around the pavement bookstalls in many parts of Africa, whether in Yaounde,

In order for the young people of Africa to lay their hands on abundant literature for young people, the continent must certainly have and boast of its own Astrid Lindgren, as Scandinavians do of this indefatigable Swedish writer of children's literature; again, Africa must also have its own

Joan Aiken, who is described as not yet having had any "rival among contemporary English children's writers except perhaps Leon Garfield". Comparatively, Peggy Appiah, the British-born wife of a Ghanaian lawyer-cum-politician, fits into the Aiken-Lindgren literary tradition as a very prolific writer of books and folkloric stories for young people. Since 1968, she has published twelve books of this kind, including The Children of Ananse, first published in London in 1968 by Evans and illustrated by Moran Dickson.

Commenting on her own work for children, Mrs Appiah wrote:

All the books I have so far published have been about Ashanti, where I live. The country is full of stories, and I find the atmosphere conducive to writing. Life in Africa has much of the unexpected, and people are closely involved in each other's lives. I have tried to project its liveliness and interest in my books and to give children in other parts of the world some idea of the life of those in Ghana. I have also tried to write for Ghanaian children about themselves, as in the past they have had to depend on books with foreign backgrounds. Most of the books are about village and forest life, animals and birds.

Mrs Appiah, indeed, stands out clearly as one of Africa's best producers of literature for young people. In an independent comment on her books for children, Naomi Mitchison, among other laudable details, wrote the following:

Peggy Appiah, first English, then, through marriage, Ashanti, is in a singularly good position to write stories in English about Ashanti. Peggy Appiah has done just that for a double audience in two countries, her stories must be as acceptable in Ghana as they are in England. By now there are thousands of children out there speaking and reading English as their second language but probably finding most English children's books a bit boring and unintelligible - nothing they can connect with. They must enjoy Peggy's books and so will British children who are at all interested in other countries. Her stories often have an element of folklorist fantasy.

In many respects, the few outstanding writers of literature for the young in Africa deserve commendation of all and sundry because they have still continued to stick to their literary interests and output despite the unpredictable political climate in various parts of the continent. After all, in Africa, a writer's published work can easily be seen in partisan terms even if it were produced purely for the benefit of the continent's non-partisan, young people.

Apart from a public recognition for many such authors, including Mrs Appiah, Nigeria's Mabel D. Segun also deserves praise. Since 1966, this unique Nigerian writer has had several books for young Africans published, among which is My Father's Daughter, published in 1966.

Interestingly, one is often fascinated by the various clarion calls of many African writers for indigenous languages, including Kishwahili, to be selected to serve as the entire contin- ent's lingua franca, or common language. Professor Wole Soyinka of the University of Ife in Nigeria, one of Africa's best writers, re-echoed the calls of his fellow writers at the Festival of African Culture (FESTAC) held in Lagos. In the light of the foregoing quest for a continental language, it is the further suggestion of many observers That such African writers should head that way by utilising their own literature produced solely for the young people of the continent to achieve this end by writing in Kiswahili and also in other well defined indigenous African languages

In fact many African writers including leaded ld Gakaara Wa Wanjau of Kenya when he shared the 1984 prestigious Award for Publishing in Africa with another African author produced his Kiswahili book entitled Mwandiki wa Mau Mau (Mau Mau Author in Detention) published in 1983 by Heinemann Educational Books East Africa Limited. Surely, the award- winning book by the Kenyan writer is not written for young people of Africa but merely demonstrates that other African writers can also use indigenous languages to reach their young readers, who are obviously the future leaders of the continent.

The sad aspect of book publishing in Africa generally, however, is that the continent had produced many excellent writers, yet only a few of them are enough to specialise in writing for the younger generation Really, a quick perusal of catalogues produced by various pan-African publishing companies very often portrays an array of such high quality authors , in some instance many of such prolific writers have had more than one published book listed to their credit.

For example, in the Heinement African and Caribbean Series alone, Chinua Achebe has had five of his published works listed, three of Kofi Awonoor’s books are listed, Ayi Kwei Armah’s five novels are also listed and Dennis Brutus is credited with three published works, just to name a few African writers whose names readily come to mind in connection with the Heineman publication.

On the other hand, it heartening to underscore that some of the the young people of Africa have merely out of literary luck encountered several of the works of these indigenous authors only in secondary literature classes, a situation which clearly shows that many of the Africans who do not have the privilege of attending secondary schools do not read any of the published works

Ancher major factor, however is that since many of these African authors do not have the young in mind when they write, it invariably happens that they produce their literature in what young African of school-going age often describe as being “difficult or stiff” English.

However it is my view that the time has now come for indigenous writers from Africa to sacrifice part of their precious resources, now matter how scarce, to assist in producing literature of mch value for the young people of the continent Professor Soyinka made an apt comment last year when he told an interviewer “I would like everybody on this continent to be able to read the works of Iroh, Sewende... as well of the works of our comrades in Ghana, Kenya and so on)

Indeed it should be a matter of priority for African writers to encourage their works to reach every spectrum of African readership. Otherwise they may have to take a page for the assertion of Lee Wyndham that author of Writing for Children and Teenagers to the effect that a writer whose work is not widely read by all might as well be keeping a diary”

talking drums 1985-07-15 guinea sekou toure's legacy - writing for young africa