One day back in April of 2019 I was lazily scrolling through my Instagram feed when something my a longtime friend from college Nomusa Ndebele posted caught my eye: she, along with her saanrize co-founder, Carol Dzingai had just released their first bilingual story book to help children engage in learning Ndebele and Shona (now available on English too.)
Gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written, I shared their creation on all my social media platforms. Because, although I didn’t have children of my own, I understood its importance. But little did I know that a month later, my fiance and I would become pregnant, and 9 months after, I would be reading it to my own son.
Yep, I went from a simple fan to a customer. And after buying my copy of the Shona/Ndebele edition, I was lucky enough to be sent a copy of their English version, which allowed my fiance to become a part of this Afrocentric children’s book experience.
But let’s take a step back and get to know the story behind this book and it’s creators: the inspiration behind its creation, the steps taken to make it come to life, and the plans for its future.
How did you two come to know each?
Nomusa: When I first had the idea to write a children’s book in Ndebele, I told my cousin Gugu about it. She suggested I contact her childhood friend, Carol, who had also expressed a desire to write and publish books in vernacular. So I sent her an email one day and a couple of weeks later we had an amazing conversation about what we could create with this book. It was during our visioning process that we realized that our mission and vision was bigger than just publishing books. It was clear to us that there was a need for all types of fun and engaging products to help children of African descent learn about and appreciate their heritage, languages and culture. And that is how saanrize was born.
What is the inspiration behind the character, Thoko?
Nomusa: When the idea of the book started to form in my head, I knew that I wanted to create a character that could represent the lived experience of millions of children of African descent across the world. Her story being that her parents were born and raised in Zimbabwe and are now living in the diaspora. They keep close ties to friends and family back home and they teach her about her culture, her history and her language. This is the same story for so many African families. We see Thoko as a tool for parents to help their children navigate the complexities that come with living in 2 cultures.
Carol: When it came to her illustration, it was important that she showed a different face than we are used to seeing in the media when it comes to characters of colour. The sad reality is that most of the black characters we see in the media are light-skinned with “good” hair, i.e. loose curls or straight hair. There are simply not enough characters that show the range of colour we have in the black community. Thoko had to show something different and relatable so she was drawn with darker skin and with beautiful, tightly curled natural hair. It was also important for her to have a uniquely identifiable side-kick that would further connect her to her heritage. In this case, a teddy-bear would not do, so we created Zou-zou, an elephant that represents her family totem. So in just looking at Thoko, the reader would be presented with – and connected to – a strong cultural story.
What was the toughest part about publishing this book? And what was the most exciting?
It was the first publishing project for both of us so there was so much to learn and manage at every turn. But the hardest part – and this continues to be a challenge, but we’re managing! – is the complexity of working as co-founders living on different continents with collaborators also living on different continents. For this book we had people working in Zimbabwe, South Africa, the UK, the US and Belgium. When you add time zones to that equation, it becomes quite a challenge. But it also becomes that much more rewarding when you see the result at the end of the day.
The best part was knowing that we were doing compelling work that would really make a difference to children of African descent being raised in the diaspora. Just knowing that we were embarking on doing our small part to help keep African languages alive, instill pride in African heritage and reframe the narrative around Zimbabwe and Africa was huge. Holding the book in our hands was an emotional moment, because that’s when it all became real.
You have the story available in 3 languages currently: Shona, Ndebele and English. Are you planning to publish it in other languages in addition to those?
A core part of our mission is preserving African languages through storytelling.Thoko Muka! Thoko Vuka! Creators
Absolutely. A core part of our mission is preserving African languages through storytelling. Therefore, we want to include as many languages as possible. If we had it our way, the book would be available in every language on the Africa continent. However, that comes with it’s own set of very complex challenges. So, we’re taking it in small, manageable steps. The African languages at the top of our list are Kalanga, Swahili, Yoruba and Hausa. We are also exploring French and Spanish as we believe our stories are worth sharing with the world. Watch this space!
Why is this book important?
It’s the first of many more stories we want to tell that will help educate, empower, change the narrative and re-frame how the next generation views Zimbabwe, Africa, Africans and people of African descent. This was our first foray into realizing our larger vision of preserving African languages and heritage and ensuring that black children see more stories and characters that look like them doing fun, amazing and courageous things. It is so important for them to “be seen” and to have pride and confidence in who they are. Their African heritage is a big part of that identity. And perhaps what is most important for us, is to show them that they belong in this world. We also hope that it moves non-Africans to seek out to learn more about and appreciate Africa and people of African descent.
What other projects do you have in the works?
We have so many exciting things cooking. We can’t give them all away yet, but we’ll give you a sense of where we’re going. For Thoko, we eventually want her to really come alive. Our baby steps in that direction are the Thoko Muka! Thoko Vuka! video books that will be launching soon (with English subtitles for our customers that need that extra help).
We also just launched the first volume of our African Heritage Flashcards. These are a fun resource for people of all ages to learn about and appreciate places, culture, royalties, and discoveries (in science, technology, engineering, art and math) from Africa. This first volume covers the 10 countries that make up Southern Africa. We have more regions in the works but we thought there was no better place to start than the region of Africa that we call home; it is also arguably the least well known part of Africa.
Digital is also a big part of our focus as it will help us reach more people in fun and engaging ways. And with the situation we are all in today, it is apparent that digital is going to play a huge role in education in the future.
Other areas we are exploring are merchandising, toys and launching more multilingual authentically African stories in time for this holiday season. Yes, we are on a mission to boot-strap our way to becoming the Disney of Africa “with a twist”. It sounds crazy, we know, but as they say, if your dreams don’t sound crazy, you aren’t dreaming big enough!
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