“What stories did you hear when you were a little child?” I asked an acquaintance. I was eager to hear the kinds of stories that nurtured him as a child. I had thought his experiences would be completely different from mine. He grew up in the lowlands, and had a different upbringing from mine.
“I don’t know many stories,” he told me. “It is the same stories that people in Asmara heard.” He mentioned some stories he read from his primary school textbook forty or so years ago.
I asked another man the same question. “I am not the kind of man with a good memory,” he admitted. “But I remember Mother used to tell us a lot of stories,” he added. “I remember a story she told us children about a cruel step-mother,” he said. “I also remember a story in which the characters ask a tree to lower its branches so that they could climb it.”
“Is it the Milenu story?” I asked him recalling how the story glued everyone to the television screen a few years ago, when the story was broadcasted on Eri-TV.
“No, it is not that story,” he answered. “But, it is very similar.”
“Do you tell your children stories?”
“No, I am not that kind of man,” he admitted.
“How about your wife, does she tell your children stories?”
“Even my wife is not the story-telling kind,” he answered.
Due to the influence of television, it is hard to find many people who grew up listening to stories (fairytales, fables etc.) in the towns.
What stories did I grow up on, apart from the stories I read? What stories did I hear as a child? I could not remember any story. The stories I know and remember very well are from my readings, and they are not Eritrean at all. Though I cannot be dead sure, I am quite certain that many people at my age share my experiences, story-less childhood because our parents were busy with other things and had no time for us, put us young children on their laps and tell us stories.
But why should we care? Why should we care if our children are being told stories or not? There are many reasons. First, recently, scientists have found out that stories activate our brains. They have discovered that stories stimulate our brains as if we were involved in the actual events. “Why does our heart race fast if our hero got in trouble?” they ask. People are not just spectators when they hear, read or watch stories, they claim. Second, stories take people to places and situations unfamiliar to them, and confront them with problems, before they actually happened to them. They also broaden their understanding of different kinds of people, and help them develop tolerance as they understand other peoples with different cultures, attitudes, and beliefs. Third, stories raise different issues and problems, and often forward a point of view, which people may or may not buy. However, whether people buy the author’s viewpoint or not, stories have brought the issue or problem for the reader to consider and think about. Later, the reader takes his stand on the issue, which enriches his understanding of the problem.
I can mention yet another benefit of storytelling. Children who have grown up listening to or reading stories do well at school, as they develop children’s concentration and comprehension skills. For this reason, children’s literacy (reading and writing) skills are well developed. Unlike other children, children who grew up listening to or reading stories don’t find school tough, and often do not drop.
Almost every week, at least one book is launched in Tigrigna these days. These include poetry, history, fiction, and other kinds of books. Most of these books are by new and young authors. A few of these write in English, a foreign language, and, therefore, a language many people in Eritrea do not speak fluently. Such trend is very encouraging for Tigrigna literature, as it makes a variety of books available for readers. In fact, it should not be allowed to lose steam, for it encourages other writers to contribute to the development of Tigrigna literature.
For the most part Tigrigna literary works have been written for adults, I have not seen many books for children in the market. The few that are in the market are translations from English, and, therefore, do not reflect Eritrean culture and values, and may not be suitable to teach Eritrean values to our children. The few others, which are not translated, were written chiefly with children’s academic performance in mind. In fact, they were written with Eritrean children’s English language proficiency in mind. Many of these books are bilingual (Tigrigna and English), which betray the authors’ purpose (teaching English to Eritrean children by translating their texts to Tigrigna). In addition, the questions at the end of each story reveal they have academic purposes in mind.
I have come across this complaint from writers and other concerned people about our reading habits: “people in Eritrea do not read”. It is hard to come to such a sweeping conclusion unless one has carried out a survey. And as far as I know, no reading survey on reading habits has been conducted in Eritrea after independence or before. Therefore, it looks as if this conclusion is not based on evidence. Assuming this complaint were valid, I think the best way to address this problem would be to start with our children and introduce a reading scheme into the curriculum, which would be neither easy nor cheap. In this scheme, children are made to borrow books (written in their mother tongues) from their school library (which assumes primary schools in Eritrea would have libraries). Mother tongue teachers then make sure children have read their books and evaluate their pupils’ comprehension and appreciation of the books. In other words, the Ministry of Education would slate time for such activities and allocate resources for teachers to be trained how to conduct and evaluate such activities.
Here, it is important to stress one point. Our stories should be written in the children’s mother tongues. There are many reasons. Firstly, our stories should reflect our culture and values and help build the kind of children our society wants to raise. I think the best way to do this would be to use Eritrean languages because our culture and values, which are part of our life and animate our decisions and actions, are in our languages. To teach our values, then, we have no choice but to use our languages. Secondly, stories are for entertainment, appreciation, and shaping people’s attitudes. Children first need to understand stories if they are to entertain them and shape their views. I have observed that many children do not understand stories in English written for children of other societies due to their limited English proficiency. This leaves us no choice but to write our stories in Eritrean languages. Certainly there are other reasons.
Stories play a significant role in shaping our children’s attitudes, molding their character and establishing their worldviews. Nothing can do this better than our stories told in our languages. Due to their limited English proficiency, our children cannot be expected to read stories in English and appreciate them. Though reading stories cannot address academic problems Eritrean children face, it can contribute to alleviating our children’s literacy related difficulties, and, hence, it should be given due attention.