Sunday, July 31, 2011

Windows and mirrors

Chang'ombe Primary School, Children's Book Project Burt Award Readings
Christine Earnshaw (courtesy CODE)

In previous posts I’ve referred to the importance of people having and hearing stories that are their own – that reflect their realities and relate their lives – rather than having others tell stories about them.

Mkama Mwijarubi and Asungushe Kayombo are Tanzanian authors who are filling a gap in the availability of such stories. Both have recently written novels for young people, novels written in English that have locally-relevant settings and characters.

The need for English language books for young adults may not seem obvious, but in many Anglophone African countries, students start school using local languages but switch to English in later elementary or early high school. This shift to a new language is made more challenging if interesting reading material isn’t easily available. (Think about what you wanted to read at that age.) Young people need stories that engage them, and characters and settings they can relate to, where they can see themselves and their preoccupations reflected. Non-fiction alone, or fiction set in England or North America, just aren’t sufficient.

Asungushe Kayombo’s book, The Best is Yet to Come, is the story of Daima, a young woman who escapes her strict home in order to achieve her dream of attending secondary school. This isn’t a sugar-coated tale, though. Daima makes her way through complex relationships and sometimes disturbing situations, experiencing the powerlessness of a child in an adult world but also the power of perseverance and of friendship.

Mkama Mwijarubi’s novel, Treeland: the Land of Laughter, creates a fantasy land, Treeland, “where trees grow and people laugh.” Treeland’s King Majabe and his daughter, Princess Zuri, must come to grips with a changing world as well as with each other. Treeland is told simply, but its characters and the challenges they face are intricate. The novel brings insights into what it means to respect tradition yet still find a new path.

Mwijarubi and Kayombo have been able to publish their young adult fiction with the help of some African organizations and a Canadian program that supports local book publishing. Mwijaribui, Kayombo and several other writers in Tanzania, Ghana, Ethiopia and Kenya are recipients of Burt Awards for African Literature. The Burt Award is sponsored by CODE, a Canadian non-profit organisation that promotes children’s learning by supporting book publishing, libraries and teacher training in Africa and the Caribbean. The Award is named for and funded by Bill Burt, a Canadian who noticed a lack of engaging books for young people while travelling with CODE to Africa in 2007. He and CODE created the Burt Award to support local authors and publishers to produce and distribute English-language books that are meaningful to young readers in Africa and that can get them enthusiastic about reading.

Local partners – the Children’s Book Project for Tanzania, the Ghana Book Trust, CODE-Ethiopia and the National Book Development Council of Kenya – manage the Awards. In Tanzania, the Children’s Book Project, which received a UNESCO International Literacy Award in 2007 for its local language publishing work, published Mwijarubi and Kayombo’s books.

To be considered for Burt Awards, authors submit manuscripts that are dramatic, humorous or suspenseful, have strong characters, and deal with the social challenges that young people face. A 6-member jury of experts in literature, linguistics and publishing selects the winning stories. With the Awards, everybody benefits: authors receive cash prizes and a publishing contract, CODE and its partners distribute several thousand copies of each book to schools and libraries, and the publishers sell the books commercially.

The International Board for Books for Youth (IBBY)-Canada, which promotes access to children’s books in Canada and internationally, also supports the Burt Award by contributing jurors and co-facilitating writing workshops for authors. Says Scott Walter, CODE's Executive Director, of the partnership, "Our two organizations share a common belief in the power of reading to transform people's lives. We know that children need windows into other worlds and mirrors that reflect their own experience. We recognize the importance of offering children access to engaging, high quality, locally written books and share an understanding of the continuum of writers and illustrators, publishers, libraries, book distributors and teachers in getting stories told -- and books produced and connected with their readers."

The Best is Yet To Come is the first novel for Asungushe Kayombo, a health professional with degrees in medicine and public health. Treeland: the Land of Laughter is the second children’s book by Mkama Mwijarubi, who has a diploma in journalism and a business degree.

Additional Burt Award winners are listed at More information on CODE can be found at CODE is looking into making the books available in Canada – which would be welcome for those of us interested in accessing engaging African stories in other parts of the world.

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