By Grant Moyo
Yeve Sibanda, a United States-based Zimbabwean author, decided to write a children’s book after she struggled to find reading material to teach her daughter native languages, Ndebele and Shona.
Lauded and positively reviewed for its high quality textual content and illustrations, her debut book, titled My First Book Of Shona And Ndebele Words, is designed to make learning fun and provide families with quality resources for their children.
Sibanda is an attorney, public speaker, cultural curator, and founder of Philisa Creatives, a media company that celebrates and amplifies African heritage.
Naming her company, ‘Philisa’, which means ‘to bring to life’ in Ndebele, was a deliberate move to clearly stress her mandate to create innovative products that enhance multicultural learning.
Her book is accompanied by a customised beautifully animated My First Shona & Ndebele calendar that showcases iconic Zimbabwean landmarks and scenery.
The colourful calendar also teaches the days of the week and months of the year in the two languages.
My First Book Of Shona And Ndebele Words is a short picture book for children and learners which features a brother and sister who introduce the reader to Shona and Ndebele vocabulary as they experience their daily life activities.
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It is formatted as a picture word book and not a traditional storybook to promote language development by allowing the reader to see and name various objects.
“The children’s book is an easy-to-read book that follows the life of the lead character, Rufaro, on her daily adventures and offers a view into her world using the two primary indigenous languages of Zimbabwe (Ndebele and Shona). My objective is not to make children language specialists, but instill cultural pride and appreciation from a young age. The content for younger readers and new learners is conferred using an engaging illustrated format of presentation which was illustrated by Ariel Mendez,” Sibanda said.
As part of cultural exchange, Sibanda pointed out that her book goes beyond Zimbabwean children, with a wider audience starting from 0 year-old infants going up. The author noted that African children’s books are not only for African children but they cater for children from all racial and social backgrounds.
She said books are an important tool in documenting culture, history, and language. Sibanda believes that celebrating, embracing, and learning about other cultures has to be normalised to build a truly global and diverse society. As such, her brand focuses on magnifying diversity, equity, and inclusion matters.
“Having lived as an immigrant in the African diaspora for most of my life, my African heritage is really important to me because it grounded me despite living so far from home.
“As I raise a family in the United States, I want to instill cultural pride and awareness in my kids so that they always know their roots. Knowing who you are and where you came from is essential, hence I have been specifically intentional about portraying a family that lives in the city and not depicting an impoverished image of Africa in the book because that narrative is misleading and overplayed. We are not a monolithic people,” Sibanda said.
Further motivated by the desire to represent Africa in a positive light as well as celebrate and honour her family’s roots, the attorney-cum-author is inspired to empower the next generation of black African children by creating products in which they are represented.
“We owe it to the next generation of children of African descent to teach them our heritage and culture. There’s a Shona proverb which says, Ziva kwawakabva kwaunoenda husiku, it translates to, ‘Know where you’re coming from to better navigate where you’re going’. We need to instill cultural pride from an early age. If we do our jobs right as adults, our kids will be proud to embrace their languages and preserve them for generations to come,” she said.
“However, I recognise that there’s a narrative among certain groups (I don’t attribute solely to class) that our languages are not worthy of preservation. It’s unfortunate and its very closely tied to the colonisation of Africa and also to the increasingly Western/Eurocentric world we live in. Ultimately, it’s each family’s prerogative to teach their children. However, I hope that with more quality learning resources on the market, more people will embrace our indigenous African languages.”
Shedding light on the phases she went through to come up with her book, Sibanda pointed out that she spent a lot of time brainstorming about its format. The author conducted a lot of market research to identify the gaps and biggest pain points with respect to children’s books. When she found a talented illustrator and started bringing her ideas to life, that is when she quickly recognised that her book would be a first introduction to Ndebele and Shona.
With everything in the book centred around early awareness and promoting language development for beginners, Sibanda knew that the book would also be helpful for non-Ndebele and non-Shona speakers, some of whom may have never heard of or travelled to Zimbabwe.
Admitting that she wanted to soundly depict Zimbabwe in a really special way, the author said working closely with the illustrator helped in paying lots of attention to detail, from each character’s clothing and hairstyles to the colours on every page.
Sibanda stressed that the creative process was really intense but so worthy once it was all completed.
While the lack of diversity and representation in children’s literature is appalling, through Philisa Creatives, Sibanda is researching the best ways to diversify her product catalogues to not only potentially include more Zimbabwean languages and cultures, but also include the rest of Africa.
If well executed, her mission will ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all.
Follow Grant Moyo on Twitter: @TotemGrant