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Forty Thieves and the African Taleswagon

From the local British Council Library you could borrow four books or so for a couple of weeks and at no cost at all. The library was about four miles away, but for a child who lived on a compulsory diet of storybooks, distance was never an obstacle.

My reading staples included those wonderful stories from the collection A Thousand and One Nights, also known as Tales from The Arabian Nights. Some of those stories were eventually published locally in thin booklets which sold for three pence each. Three quite memorable stories from that rich collection are those of The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp and also Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

It once came upon me to take some stories from such a rich collection and other children stories in the public domain and to localize them for the pleasure of African children of these contemporary times by substituting character names, situations and settings which they may be able to identify with. The objective was to make these stories more meaningful in content and context and to make the lessons to be learned easily visible to the reading African child. Surely, snow in a story should be quite alienating to children who have lived all their lives in the hot tropics. But if the snowstorm is replaced by a thunderstorm, the situation of the story becomes less abstract and a lot easier to understand. The result of this effort was the project which I called Opengriot.

The concept was very simple – authors were invited to help rewrite these foreign stories and post them on this Internet portal for African children and their parents to read and enjoy free of charge. I was able to persuade a charity called Translators without Borders to do free translations for me in French, Spanish and Arabic. But as is common with projects of this type, the promoter eventually learns that the enthusiasm is never shared and he is a lonely traveller on a journey of uncertain duration and direction.

There were two major challenges, one was that invited authors balked at the idea of giving their work away for free. I can if course understand why – writing for children is very hard work. Secondly it really never takes long for a project to lose steam if there is no money pushing it forward. Regardless, OpenGriot persisted as a labour of love which I worked on all by myself and I was able to compile nearly twenty localized stories and to get them translated to French, Portuguese and Arabic. Nevertheless a project such as this cannot be carried all by yourself and it didn’t take so long for OpenGriot to grind to a halt

Abubakar and the Robbers is my localized version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Here again, I have made the storyline essentially the same as the original, the marked difference being change in the names of the characters and the locality of the story. Thus, Ali Baba of Persia becomes Abubakar of Karanga, a fictitious town located somewhere in West Africa. The robbers’ donkeys were also changed to smart trucks and cars as it is inconceivable in these contemporary times to have rich robber riding around on donkeys. And finally, the evil robbers did not get scalded to death with hot oil while hiding in barrels as the original story demanded, they were simply arrested by the police!

From my coming book – a collection of essays , extracts from published books , autobiographical notes and more.

Read Abubakar and the Robbers

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