Disney+ and Cartoon Network, two major US animation platforms, announced last month they will broadcast four productions by African creators. This follows similar announcements from streaming giants like Netflix and Youtube Originals, indicating a demand for representation and local narratives among African audiences amid a boom in the global animated content market.
The first new production is “Kizazi Moto” (meaning 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 creators 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 defend their community. “Kiff”, a 2D animated comedy from South African creators, is about an optimistic squirrel and a laid-back bunny. Finally, “Garbage Boy and Trash Can”, Cartoon Network Africa’s new superhero comedy series is about a boy with imaginary superpowers who fights for justice with his trusty sidekick.
—Disney+ (@disneyplus) June 17, 2021
While this representation is a huge win, the quest for representation for many African animators goes beyond simply having characters who look like 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.
Over 300 African languages are endangered
The African continent is home to about a third of the about 7,000 worldwide living 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 endangered and more than 52 have disappeared. The report also indicates that if young people do not learn these languages, even more of them will disappear. Of the 230 world languages that have disappeared since 1950, 37 were found in Africa.
According to to a Quartz article on Yakunte — a dying language in Kenya that is now spoken by just seven people, all over the age of 70 – African languages are particularly vulnerable as governments adopt official languages while discouraging local languages, hoping to forge 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, Mandinka, 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 tide?
African languages in animation
While English is still the dominant language in the global animation market, largely due to the ubiquity of Disney, Kiswahili has gained status as an alternative language for African audiences.
Disney’s 1994 animated feature “The Lion King” is perhaps the most popular Western film featuring 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” (created in 2015) has since elevated Kiswahili’s status as the go-to African language in animations.
Since then, African animators have succeeded in integrating Kiswahili into their production dialogues, animated films or series titles. Some of them include: “Super Sema” — Africa’s first children’s superhero animated series 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 at #Youtube with @lupitanyongo like mum Dunia.#youtubeoriginals #Super hero #africandiasporakids #africandiaspora #blackstories #africananimation pic.twitter.com/DaAoU3f0sL
— Mbifebooks (@mbifebooks) July 18, 2021
During interview with litnet.co.zaChris Morgan, founder and creative director of Fundi Films, and producer of the “My Better World” series had this to say:
Despite the scarcity of formal training opportunities, local productions are already beginning to take off. It was important to have real diversity in our characters so that the series could work in different parts of our continent. We went through every stage of development with teams in Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya – these same reviewers guided our scriptwriting process.
Some notable animations teaching African languages
Animation is an effective way at teach young Africans life skills and languages that are often not taught in schools. There are a number of animated shows that hope to fill this gap.
From West Africa, there are “Bino and Fino“ – an educational cartoon for children created by Nigerian animator Adamu Waziri which was launched in 2010. Characters – Bino and Fino are a brother and sister who learn about African history and culture with Zeena, a magical butterfly. The cartoon airs in 15 countries in English, Twi, Yoruba, German, Dutch, Portuguese, Hausa, Igbo, French and Swahili and is also available on YouTube. The Anilingo series by “IyinCreative” is also another animation from Nigeria that promotes and preserves African cultural heritage.
Meet Bino and Fino, a brother and sister who go on an adventure with their magic 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 (@batteriepop) June 16, 2020
“Ẹbí Fọ́lọ́runṣọ́“ is another anime series that teaches the Yoruba language commonly spoken in Nigeria created by Kayode Oloko, born in 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 the inspiration in an interview with Pan-Africa.net.
In Nigeria today, many parents prefer their offspring to speak the English language 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 CHILDREN TV, a YouTube television 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 to 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 jostles for a place at the global animation table, it is also poised to become the next animation hotspot thanks to continued efforts to create an original voice and look. But support and ownership by African governments is still elusive. According to The Association for the Development of Education in Africa (ADEA)
The need for government interventions and supports for comics and cartoons becomes necessary because they are strategic media to communicate with the young generations of this millennium.