Heroes who look - and speak - like us: Two women are bringing African folktales to young readers

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Tina Akuok and Khumo Tapfumaneyi, co-founders of Ethnikids, noted a shortage of literature in their mother tongue so they decided to balance the scales by starting an online bookstore six years ago. Image supplied by Talking Point
Tina Akuok and Khumo Tapfumaneyi, co-founders of Ethnikids, noted a shortage of literature in their mother tongue so they decided to balance the scales by starting an online bookstore six years ago. Image supplied by Talking Point
  • Khumo Tapfumaneyi and Tina Boateng Akuoko are the co-founders of Ethnikids, an online store that sells books by and about people of colour.
  • The women noted a shortage of literature in their mother tongue so they decided to balance the scales by starting their store six years ago and becoming instrumental in helping children to learn in their mother tongue as it enhances cognitive development and learning abilities.
  • Today, Ethnikids is proud to have the widest catalogue of inclusive and diverse children's books in all official languages. They source the books from local and international traditions and independent publishers and authors. 

Heritage is described as features belonging to the culture of a particular society, such as traditions, languages, or buildings, that were created in the past and still have historical importance, according to the Cambridge Dictionary.

Part of heritage is language, and according to research, the mother tongue is crucial in framing the thinking and emotions of people. Yet, say researchers, many children across the developing world are learning very little in school, a reality linked to being taught in a language they do not fully understand.

This issue is close to the hearts of Khumo Tapfumaneyi and Tina Boateng Akuoko, co-founders of Ethnikids, an online bookstore specialising in children's books that feature characters of colour. Their store hosts a wide selection of local and international books featuring protagonists of colour in South Africa.

reading, learning, heritage, mother tongue, ethnik

Tina Akuok and Khumo Tapfumaneyi founded Ethnikids, an online bookstore which makes African folklore accessible through its online bookstore. Image supplied by Talking Point

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Ethnikids was established out of a personal need for each of the co-founders - the desire to have easy access to inclusive children's books in their home languages. 

"It made no sense to us that we had to struggle to find books to read to our children in our mother tongues in our home country. At the time of inception, finding material of this nature in mainstream bookstores in South Africa was incredibly difficult," says Khumo.

Today, Ethnikids is proud to have the widest catalogue of inclusive and diverse children's books in all official languages. They source the books from local and international traditions and independent publishers and authors.

reading, learning, heritage, mother tongue, ethnik

Children and parents enjoying some African folktales. Image supplied by Talking Point

Their company has seen some success since it started operating. "We have been a disruptive force in the industry in that only 2% of children's trade publishing books were made in indigenous languages because of a stated lack of demand, but our very existence as a bookstore six years later proves otherwise," says Tina.

"We hope to keep serving this market and encouraging more publishers and authors to keep sharing inclusive stories. We have built great partnerships and collaborations with numerous corporates, schools and foundations. And have had wonderful opportunities to interact and engage with children at book readings with authors in libraries, parks and book fairs."

The two women believe they are making strides in changing perceptions about ethnic languages. The big social issue they aim to address is illiteracy.

"Studies have shown that 78% of South African Grade 4 children cannot read for comprehension in any language. We aim to increase awareness and parental engagement around this issue. The ability to read is such an important skill, and it's important that we build the love of books and reading early on in a child's life," says Khumo.

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Recently, there has been a lot of debate about inclusion and children seeing protagonists of their own race in books or films. Tina says it's affirming and psychologically crucial for children to see themselves in the books they read.

"It's referred to as the 'mirrors and windows' effect. Books (and other forms of media) are mirrors for those children who see people who look like they are positively represented and feel better about their identity. They also act as windows in that they allow us to learn about other cultures and build greater tolerance and understanding in society," she says.

Educational psychologist Seago Maapola agrees, adding that it is critical to help the child create a good "self-concept".

"If children do not perceive themselves as represented by the media or the literature they consume, they may also begin to feel invisible or less important than others. The risk is reaffirming a single narrative based on stereotypes," she says.

"This hinders children's ability to achieve their goals and dreams based on their capacities and aspirations. And if children do not perceive themselves as architects, teachers or engineers... they may not perceive these careers in the future."

reading, heritage, folklore, languages

Educational psychologist Seago Maapola says learning in the mother tongue is critical to children's development. Image supplied by Talking Point

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According to Seago, reading to our children in their home language builds a strong foundation for language use, which is critical in learning additional languages.

"Children who are exposed to age-appropriate literature in their home language develop stronger pre-literacy skills than children who are only exposed to books in their second language," she says.

From a social and emotional perspective, being able to read and converse in their native languages impacts some familial and social relationships. When children visit their extended families or friends who speak a different language, they sometimes feel left out if they cannot communicate effectively.

"They may sometimes feel embarrassed and withdraw from social settings. It also becomes challenging to pass on specific cultural values if the home family language is not understood. Additionally, the level of a child's understanding of their language, culture and heritage plays a crucial role in their identity and self-concept," says Seago.

Besides being able to operate in society, there are also educational benefits to being bilingual as it increases children's reasoning abilities, which impacts on their non-verbal abilities. 

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The world has changed and many children, particularly those who live in cities, do not necessarily use African languages in their daily lives. Parents may feel it's unnecessary to learn one. However, Seago believes it helps with a sense of belonging beyond the community.

"We sometimes think that only speaking English, the language of instruction at school, sets our children up for prospering in mainstream society. However, recent research shows us the implications of this approach. Acculturation, the impact of home language loss, loss of our children's heritage and culture, impacts their identity and self-concept," she explains.

"This advocacy does not imply that we should not communicate in English at all. I find that it has worked well when parents categorise this into a 'learning language' and a 'family language'. That makes room for exposure to languages spoken in the home."

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Ethnikids has recently partnered with Wimpy in a project dubbed, Our Stories, Our Languages, which allows people to collect an African Folktales picture book with every kiddies combo meal ordered at Wimpy. One can collect six books, all written and illustrated by South Africans.

Tina and Khumo are upbeat about the collaboration, calling it one of the greatest highlights for their business.

"It has enabled us to do what we could never do on our own, and there are numerous synergies between the brands. Working with them has allowed us to work with some of the very best authors, illustrators and translators in the country in creating these books and providing a massive platform for the work we do of making reading a part of our everyday lifestyle," she says.

"In this way, Wimpy is creating a culture of reading, helping to address literacy in South Africa, which enables us to impact more people and change more lives."

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