These African animators save their mother tongues with the help of cartoonsGlobal Voices
Disney + and Cartoon Network, two major American animation platforms, announced last month they will broadcast four productions by African designers. This follows similar announcements from streaming giants like Netflix and Youtube Originals, indicating a demand for local representation and narratives among African audiences amid a boom in the global animated content market.
The first new production is “Kizazi Moto” (which means Generation Fire in Swahili), a 10-part animated collection of Afro-Futurist anthology films that explores the future of Africa. It will include stories from designers from six African countries. The second, “Kiya and the Kimoja Heroes” is a preschool series centered on a 7 year old African girl who enjoys ballet and martial arts. When she and her two best friends put on their magical crystal headbands, they become superheroes ready to stand up for their community. “Kiff,” a 2D animated comedy from South African creators is about an upbeat squirrel and a laid-back bunny. Finally, “Garbage Boy and Trash Can,” Cartoon Network Africa’s latest superhero comedy series, is about a boy with imaginary superpowers who fights for justice with his loyal sidekick.
– Disney + (@disneyplus) June 17, 2021
If this representation is a huge victory, the quest for representation of many African animators goes beyond the simple fact of having characters who resemble them. Animation has also become a tool for preserving endangered African languages. Through entertainment, these creators hope to use animation as a vehicle for African mythologies, philosophies, rich traditions, cultural expressions and languages.
More than 300 African languages are in danger
The African continent is home to around a third of in the world around 7,000 modern languages. Due to the relentless dominance of international languages such as English and French, mother tongues are increasingly under threat.
In 2018, UNESCO has reported that more than 300 African languages are in danger and more than 52 are missing. The report also said that if young people are not taught these languages, even more are likely to disappear. Of the 230 languages extinct in the world since 1950, 37 were in Africa.
According to to a Quartz article on Yakunte – a dying language in Kenya that is now spoken by only seven people, all over the age of 70 – African languages are particularly vulnerable as governments embrace official languages while discouraging local languages, in hopes of forging a more unified national identity.
Despite its great linguistic diversity, English and French, two international languages, are the predominant official languages for most African states. Somali, Berber, Wolof, Oromo, Igbo, Swahili, Hausa, Mandingo, Fulani and Yoruba are African languages which, although spoken by tens of millions of people, are considered as local and only a few are official at the national level.
Can African animators change this trend?
African languages in animation
While English is still the dominant language in the global animation market, largely due to Disney’s ubiquity, Kiswahili has become an alternative language for African audiences.
The 1994 Disney animated feature film “The Lion King” is perhaps the most popular Western film starring Kiswahili according to an article titled “The (mis) use of Kiswahili in Western popular culture“ by ThisisAfrica. A Disney spin-off series called “Lion Guard” (premiered in 2015) has since elevated Kiswahili’s status as the benchmark African language in animation.
Since then, African animators have successfully incorporated Kiswahili into their production dialogues, animated films or series titles. Some of them include: “Super Sema“- the first animated superhero series for children in Africa co-produced by Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o; “Akili and me“ produced by Ubongo Kids; and “My better world.”
#SuperSema launched in March 2021 and is truly inspiring, educational, and fun content for all kids.
Episodes are available on #Youtube with @lupitanyongo like Mama Dunia.#youtubeoriginals #Super hero #africandiasporakids #africandispora #black stories #african animation pic.twitter.com/DaAoU3f0sL
– Mbifebooks (@mbifebooks) July 18, 2021
During a interview with litnet.co.za, Chris Morgan, Founder and Creative Director of Fundi Films, and producer of the ‘My Better World’ series said:
Despite the scarcity of formal training opportunities, local productions are already starting to take off. It was important to have real diversity in our characters so that the show could work in different parts of our continent. We went through each stage of development with teams in Ghana, Nigeria, and Kenya – those same reviewers guided our screenwriting process.
Some notable activities teaching African languages
The animation is an efficient way at teaching young Africans life skills and languages that are often not taught in schools. There are a number of animation shows that hope to fill this gap.
From West Africa, there are “Bino and Fino“ – an educational children’s cartoon created by Nigerian animator Adamu Waziri which was released in 2010. The characters – Bino and Fino are a brother and sister who learn African history and culture with Zeena a magical butterfly. The cartoon is broadcast in 15 countries in English, Twi, Yoruba, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Hausa, Igbo, French and Swahili and is also available on YouTube. The Anilingo series of “IyinCreative” is also another animation from Nigeria promoting and preserving African cultural heritage.
Meet Bino and Fino, a brother and sister who go on an adventure with their magical butterfly Zeena and learn all about Africa and the world! Watch at https://t.co/xESBCQtYFa and batteryPOP’s FREE Cartoon Roku Channel. #binoandfino pic.twitter.com/tWBmCbEBiR
– batteryPOP (@batterypop) June 16, 2020
“bí Fọ́lọ́runṣọ́“ is another animated series that teaches the Yoruba language commonly spoken in Nigeria, created by Kayode Oloko, originally from Nigeria and based in Finland. The show campaigns to raise awareness of the culture, tradition, language and identity of all Yoruba children in Nigeria He discussed his initiative and inspiration in an interview with Pan-Africa.net.
In Nigeria today, many parents prefer their offspring to speak English rather than their own mother tongue. It is a sad reality that future generations could lose their identity and purpose, a heavy price to pay for living in a host country.
From Central Africa there are CMR KIDS TV, a YouTube TV channel that teaches young Cameroonian children about their culture and history as well as languages such as Ewondo and Dioula.
In East Africa, Tsehai likes to learn is another noteworthy animation. The Ethiopian Children’s Education Platform is available in seven local languages and focuses on providing essential information on literacy, health, and social and emotional learning for young children.
In South Africa, YouTube offers shows such as Zulu children songs and Xhosa children. Unlike other African countries where only one local language is recognized as the national language, South Africa has 11 official languages, 10 of which are indigenous to the country.
As Africa scrambles for a place at the global animation table, it is also poised to become the next animation hotspot through constant efforts to create an original voice and look. But support and ownership by African governments is still elusive. According to Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)
The need for government intervention and support for comics and cartoons becomes necessary as they are strategic media for communicating with younger generations in this millennium.