There is only one bookshop in the Gambia with a good collection of children’s books – Dr. Anna Stelthove-Fend

Frau Dr. Anna Stelthove-Fend who has tremendously contributed to facilitate access to quality children books in The Gambia by donations and extraordinary personal commitment. She also contributed to the establishment of the Africa library in Cologne which hosts books from and about Africa, translated into German, and contains about 300 books, fiction as well as non-fiction. It is probably the biggest collection of this kind in Cologne. The library also offers an impressive collection of African classics for children and youths.

Dr. Anna was present in Accra for the IBBY Africa Regional Meeting from September 29 to October 1, to share the success of her book donation initiative in The Gambia. We seize the opportunity to interview her about her career, motivation and experience around African children literature.

Muna Kalati (MK): How were your first experience with books and reading? 

Dr. Anna Stelthove-Fend (ASF): My first experience with reading was the newspaper. We didn’t have books for children at home when I started reading.

MK: What were the first children’s books you read? Were they African? Any childhood authors you remember? What did these reading practices teach you as a child? 

ASF: The first children’s books were the textbooks at school, later there was a library in our parish. I read books of German authors. As I am a German there were no African books. Reading gave me access to other children’s lives and ideas.

MK: Why did you become interested in the world of children’s books? Is it a choice or a stroke of fate? 

ASF: I’m sure reading was the key for my personal development and my professional career. I like good children’s books. And I see that many children don’t have access to them. That’s why I’m looking for suitable books for different children: for children at an Upper Basic School in The Gambia as well as for Primary Schools and for children in Germany in Nursery, Primary and Upper Basic Schools.

MK: Do you carry out actions for the promotion of children’s literature in Africa/Cameroon? Feel free to describe them if necessary.

ASF: In my own small way, I present books I like on Facebook, I talk to bookshops. In Cameroon as in Africa, the children’s book sector is not well known to the general public and especially to parents. How do you explain this phenomenon?

I know only the situation in The Gambia: a few books are available in stationary shops. There is only one bookshop in the Gambia with a good collection of children’s books. There are the prices high and most of the people don’t have the money for books. They even don’t know about the bookshop or don’t dare to go there to look at the books only.

MK: What do you think of the general situation of books and reading in your country? In Africa? Do you have any proposals to improve its management?

ASF: The general situation of books and reading in my country – Germany – is critical in my opinion. We have a huge number of children from mostly poor families going to school but not reading. They don’t have a literacy to participate fully in social and political discussions. In Africa I only know something about The Gambia. The general situation of books and reading is – as far as I see – bad. There is a small group of children – often visiting private schools – who have access to books and are able to read very well. And there is a bigger group of children attending school with much hope but no support from the parents (because they are not well educated and often thinking reading wouldn’t be worthwhile). These children have to be supported e.g. with reading material and additional reading classes.

MK: In Africa, children’s literature is located on the periphery and seen as a marginal genre compared to classical literature. What do you think of that?

ASF: Yes that’s what I see. But I see a development that children’s books are more recognized.

MK: What is your vision for the future of children’s literature in your country?

ASF: In my country Germany I hope we will be able to get the children from poorer families interested in books and reading. The means should be there. In The Gambia I would like to see children taught in their mother language and fully able to use this language. English or another language should be taught additionally. There should be more books of African origin and ideas. To put it shortly: the syllabus and the libraries have to be decolonised.

MK: How do you envision the role and impact of IBBY in Africa?

ASF: I think IBBY could have an important role and huge impact, but it will be a long way.

MK: Any last word?

ASF: I’m very glad about your project. That’s what I’m missing: a database with books for children of different ages and genres. What I said in my presentation there are different cultures in different countries. That should be taken care of in the database. I wish you much success for the sake of the African children.

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