From Oral Tradition and Traditional Stories to Written and New Stories

Dominique Mwankumi


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me, first, to join all the speakers that have preceded me expressing to this prestigious institution IBBY Rwanda National Section, our thanks and gratitude for letting us participate in this forum that gathers specialists, eminent personalities, and professionals in the field of children’s literature from all over the world. We will profit from their experience.

It is fortunate that periodically IBBY, that gathers us today, invites its members for a collective session of evaluation.

Our participation will deal with an overview of some countries in Francophone Africa, the contribution of ILLUSAFRICA and the impact of the new generation of author-illustrator at the international level.

Indeed, it is difficult for anyone to further research on iconography of African children’s books and to find the necessary information to attempt a chronological approach. This is explained by the fact that the concept of illustrated children’s books in Africa is very recent and the proper documentation is, most of the times, scattered in the west, where children’s books are easily identifiable. More and more they become object of research.

Contrariwise, in Africa the consecrated notion of the book chain has plenty of deficiencies in every link. We are convinced that, apart from the projects that have been published in the continent, training is one of the most promising answers to the need for efficiency of all the actors of socio-cultural life. Today, our priority are African authors and illustrators of children’s books.

At the beginning of the 21st century, images own an added value for a commercial product. We must talk, from now on, of capitalization in the domain of cultural industries.

Also, I have thought useful to highlight, in my contributions to this forum, a consideration, even if it is a modest one, in terms of operational support to the growth of African children’s literature.



Brief Historical Recount

“A good third of humanity is analphabet”, according to poet and thinker H.M. Enzensberger. But those called “analphabets” are not without culture: their culture is oral, many times millenarian, and it comprises treasures of wisdom, of the art of living. This intervention wants to underline the beauty of those minority languages that tend to disappear and to denounce the alarming lack of attention we give to “others” who are not “equal” to us.

“At the beginning, writing and image were just one thing.” We see it in Egypt, in the illustrations of the Book of the Death. A valorization of its contents is completed by the iconic elements, by the richness in colour and a tight lay out that resembles a text.

More over, this idea is filled with symbolic values (the ideogram: a sign- an idea) and then, over all, the beginning of their dialogue with the oral elements (the phonogram: a sign – a sound) and this increases the abstraction process.

Free of figurative references, the written language is assimilated to a complex code that needs an initiation and that empowers you when you know it. And this is truer insofar the written texts rule the key factors of society: commerce, religion, administration, sciences.

With the invention of the alphabet (second and first millennia) that supports the economy of the new communication system, comes the breakup: writing does not “show” the world anymore, it “talks” about it.

Preexistence of Imagery in Africa

Well before the arrival of Europeans, the image has existed on several supports and has known luxurious periods as in the pyramids’ walls in Egypt, the palaces’ ornaments, the Kuba textiles, the pygmies’ tapas. Always the image has both a sacred function (magic-religious) and a utilitarian one.

“Policies for acknowledging the cultural and historical differences give little room for derivations of the imagination, and it is better to acknowledge the memory and the history of individuals and of groups than to let the identifications soar”, according to Michel Wieviskra.

Tradition and established ways of doing things in a certain manner that marks cultural identity will not be an obstacle to the will of reinventing the usual productions in the domain of children’s literature. Children’s books may perpetuate the familiar teaching of yesterday and create an innovative imaginary as a relay for an oral culture which is disappearing.

The idea of gathering activities of training, lectures, animation, publishing and exhibitions of authors and illustrators of African origin is a powerful cultural tool.

It is also time to constitute a library of African children’s literature that meets the aspiration of Africans today: rooted in African tradition and looking toward modernity. This duality is being expressed by African literature long time ago.

The Colonial Period

The colonial period is characterized by an imposition of western imagery on African cultures. The writings of the time express the fascination for virginal nature felt by travellers of an already industrialized world, the same fascination that a “free” man feels in a “wild” or “exotic” environment.


This specific image of the time is of a very ambiguous exoticism. The African artisans are reduced to mere auxiliary helpers. This view contributed in large part to substitute for some decades a traditionally oral culture by a written culture.

African Children’s Literature Today

To create children’s literature as an author or an illustrator, you cannot improvise. There are rules and exigencies you must know. You must look for the best attitude, the most efficient one, the one that will impact the reader…

Writing or illustrating is a gift that you learn to improve; it grows in contact with the professionals in the field. I will talk now of African artists.

The current evolution in the field of children’s illustration can be seen through publications of African authors and illustrators that are known in the international scenario, such as: Véronique Tadjo, Meshak Assaré, Christian Kingué Epanya, Hassan Musa, William Wilson, Dominique Mwankumi, Barly-Baruti. Their know-how contributes to the gradual visibility of a generation of illustrators and authors who carry with them the hope and the future of publishing for African children.

This common call to African artists takes now another meaning. That is to see the emerging, and encourage it, of a generation of illustrators and authors who carry with them the hope and the future of publishing for African children, that is being born and making a beautiful alliance of heritage and tradition with modernity and invention. African children must be the first recipients of these books. These books that look to the world with a new view must cross boundaries to let us see them with our eyes too frequently biased by blinkers.

Dominique Tabah, Director of the Library of Bobigny at the Exhibition of African Images, 2 December, 2000


“What life expects of you is not only that you find the reasons to explain your difficulties and your defects, but that you find the means to solve your problems and win many victories.”

The creation of ILLUSAFRICA is the result of the awareness of some African artists and creators of children’s books that they should give Africa sustainable answers regarding

the problems of children’s literature, a challenge that need no reassertion.. From this point of view, we want to change the image of children soldiers carrying “kalachnikovs” or that of street children to one of happy children, reading quality books.

What can you do in the modern world if you can not read or write?

In a world ruled by the concepts of globalization and information and communication technologies, what will become of children if we do not grant them the right to read and the ability to write?

Even if in Africa children’s literature is still a marginal, almost non-structured field, it is nevertheless an important cultural support and an irrefutable help in teaching. After many years, a good number of African children felt frustrated by their non-representation in the readers that were imposed on them.

Stories in Action - Dominique Mwankumi

With the help of artistic practice accompanied by their creators, Dominique Mwankumi draws and tells simultaneously the story of “Maïsha and Katika”. The oral tale and the graphic image nourish each other, capture the attention of the listeners, allow them to catch a glimpse of horizons, their imaginary appropriates these images. Then, children and parents reproduce moments in the story, analyse the colour and the drawings, they confront them…A community of creators at work, the communal work of art may start…

These activities may be possible thanks to the intervention of different partners; they aim at creating an efficient continental dynamic, making particularly readable and visible the contribution constituted by this artistic presence.

An Artist

Working with colour associated to simple and precise texts helps to tell the life of African children in its playful dimension, realistically and sometimes tragically. These children living tough lives are shown without complacency in their everyday activities. Their determination, their boldness, their joy of living show the great tenderness of these characters whose condition and the magnificent landscape are shown to us with much simplicity and strength.

Their work is a life lesson that crosses all cultural boundaries.


President Dominique Mwankumi

(translated from French by María Candelaria Posada)