African Folktales… Digitized?

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Bwalya Mwali, brain behind the Africa folktales project.

The thought of it conjures up a kind of oxymoron born out of the stereotypical idea that the words “Africa” and “digital” might be friends, but not exactly family. Then, add “folktales” and some might even picture these gems of Africa’s oral tradition as orphans in the digital space.

African is a home to thousands of beautiful folktales, yet many of them are not written, let alone digitalized. This is an embarrassing situation, which leaves Africa’s growing Diaspora populations with little or no knowledge of the continent’s rich cultural heritage. And younger Diaspora generations are left to consume to adopt the cultures and identities of their foreign hosts.

As a result of this embarrassing situation, Bwalya Mwali and few other Africans in the Diaspora, have embarked on a task to collect, document and digitally preserve traditional folktales and stories from the continent, in order to make it easily accessible to the younger generation of Africans in the Diaspora.

The project, titled “African Folktales and Arts Preservation,” is an implicit bridge between generations and will collect stories from the continent through an annual school essay competition among young Africans between the ages of 8 and 15 years old, to collect stories from elderly people.

Bwalya Mwali said the African tales’ project grew out of her experiences as a parent of African origin bringing up children in a mixed race marriage, away from my own family and home country.

“It’s an idea that started with my own children’s curiosity about their African origin from a very young age. They persistently asked me not only to recount but also to explain our traditional African folktales in equal if not more doses to the globally popular western ones we had readily available each bedtime. This every day’s simple initiative led to the idea of assembling folk stories of people of African origin into a repository in order to make them readily available to a wider public,” Bwalya Mwali said.

“Globalization and rapid socio-economic change means that most Africans in the Diaspora have less access to traditional folktales; thereby becoming underexposed to their own culture in contrast to information which is readily available everywhere and easily accessible,” she added. “In time, the rich cultures and traditions of people of African origin will become threatened when elders, who are the main vehicles for the transmission of unique cultural knowledge, die – therefore, there is a crucial need to secure this heritage for future generations.”

The use of kids between the age of 8 and 15 years, according to Mwali, is meant to get them in telling their own stories to the world and strengthen their knowledge about their culture. Mwali explained that engaging young people is not only significant for preserving African folktales but all the cultures and meanings that they denote, to bridge the generation gap between the young and the elderly as well as reinforcing the value for culture, she said.

“Children can be important vehicles for the transmission of cultures as well as for the promotion of a multicultural society and by working with elder people to collect these stories, they are learning from a reservoir of knowledge which gives them the opportunity to ask the most difficult questions to get first-hand knowledge about themselves and their ancestors.

“The folk stories and the rest of works will be made available to local and international audiences through the digital space. This way we hope to preserve the African tradition and cultural heritage and make it easily accessible and valued for its contribution to the world.

“In this day and age, anything that is not on the snap of the fingers and is not on Google doesn’t exist, especially to the young generation. We have the longest history in the world, it is important to bring it into digital space and preserve it for our future generations. If nothing is done about it, the bulk of this intangible cultural heritage will be lost.

Currently, Bwalya Mwali and her team, who are overseeing the project, has finished the pilot phase, by reaching out to almost all African countries and working through the process of orienting the project volunteers. She added that at present there are not less than 30 countries working through the process and preparing towards the launch of the first school competitions at the end of 2018.

“This project is not about finishing more than it is about starting. It is a small piece of the bigger puzzle of collectively securing and adding value to our intangible cultural Heritage There are several aspects to it.

“Our focus, for now, is to create the digital repository on which all collected stories will be aggregated; basically putting the wheel in motion and hope that other people of African origin will feel the importance of the program and take it to the next level. Not only is it important for us to preserve our cultural heritage of oral traditions, but we are equally creating a huge network,” she noted.

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