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Reading Africa

May 06, 2020 by Nóra Wünsch-Nagy

May is a special month for Africa: African World Heritage Day is celebrated on May 5th, and Africa Day is on May 25th. A wonderful opportunity for us to learn more about this amazingly diverse and understudied continent.

What images come to your mind when you hear the word 'Africa'? What do you know about its culture, languages, geography and wildlife?  How diverse is its beautiful natural world? What about its troubled history, from the birth of mankind through the slave trade and colonization to today's vibrant, independent continent.

Here is a tip: ask your students to find out how many countries there are in Africa and the languages spoken there. Of course statistics can never give a complete picture, but it is a good way to start building knowledge about places.

The secret to a deeper understanding of places and people is the stories we hear and tell about them. Although travelling to Africa may only be a dream for many of us, we can still explore the continent through folk tales, short stories, novels and poems. Let's take a look at some resources that will help you become more familiar with this vast and wonderful land.

A folktale

Folktales tell us a lot about how different cultures think about the world, and what values they want to pass on to the next generation. African folktales often feature animals, and they often have a lesson to teach rather than striving for a happy ending. The Helbling Young Reader The Leopard and the Monkey (retold by Richard Northcott, illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni) is an adaptation of a well-known African folktale.

Illustration by Cristiano Lissoni in The Leopard and the Monkey. © Helbling Languages


Plot summary:

It's morning in the jungle and leopard is hungry and his favourite breakfast is monkeys. But leopard falls into a well and only baby monkey can help him. Can baby monkey pull leopard out of the well? And is leopard really monkey's friend? Find out how a clever little animal can trick a big fierce one in this classic African folk tale.

Read more folktales here:

Read more about folktales on our blog:

A story about art

The African Mask by Günter Gerngross, illustrated by Cristiano Lissoni is a short story for elementary learners that gives us a glimpse at African art through an exciting story about a mask from Botswana. A story like this is an interesting starting point to learn more about ritual and ceremonial masks. It also gives a pathway into the continent. You can read more about Botswana through its art, culture and nature.

The African Mask page 17
Illustration by Cristiano Lissoni in The African Mask. © Helbling Languages


Plot summary:

Janet gets a letter out of the blue from her old boyfriend Donald McKinnon. He invites her to visit him in Scotland but when she gets there strange things start to happen. Why do people rush off when they hear Donald's name? Why is Donald so sad? And what has Donald's African mask got to do with all this?

A story to learn about history

Learning about African history is a complex task, especially the intricacies of colonial history. There are few  African voices from the colonial period and we often rely on Western-centred literature. One exception is Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Although Conrad is a Western author his story explores the horrors of colonization, imperialism, slavery and ivory trade. 

The Helbling reader was adapted by David A. Hill and illustrated by Michele Rocchetti for intermediate- level readers. There is a 4-page dossier on imperialism in the reader.

Heart of Darkness map
Illustration by Michele Rocchetti in Heart of Darkness. © Helbling Languages


Plot summary:

When Marlow, an experienced sailor, goes to Africa as the captain of a steamboat on the Congo River, the journey has a profound effect on him. As Marlow sails further down the river and into the heart of the African continent to bring back ivory and a brilliant but mysterious agent called Mr Kurtz, he feels he is travelling further and further into the heart of darkness. What is this darkness? What powers of darkness take Mr Kurtz?

Read our lesson tips on teaching the story in the language class:

Original fiction set in Africa

A Single Shot and The Right Thing are two original stories written by Scott Lauder and Walter McGregor, illustrated by Arianna Vairo for intermediate-level young adult and adult learners.

The stories are set in Paris and London and take us to a fictional African state called Yolanda, with parallels to many modern African countries where corruption and political manipulation by Western states are part of everyday life. 

The Right Thing page 40
Illustration by Arianna Vairo in The Right Thing. © Helbling Languages


Plot summary of The Right Thing:

When Josh meets Trish and Suzi at their first day of college in London, little do they know that they will soon be swept up into a mystery involving the British and Yolandan governments. Luckily for them, Morrow, a British Security Service agent, takes them under his wing. But by doing so he has to decide what is the right thing to do. What will Morrow's decision mean for him? Only Control can decide.

Plot summary of the sequel A Single Shot:

When Lewis Morrow escapes from his captors and a sure death he makes a new life for himself as a taxi driver in Paris. He thinks he has left everything behind until one day he sees three young people he once helped in London. When Josh, Trish and Suzi get into trouble, Morrow needs to decide if he will help them or let the past stay in the past. 

A story about African-American history

African-American history is interlinked with African history. One way of learning about the events of 19th-century African-American history is through the events described in Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher-Stowe, and Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin was adapted by Donatella Velluti and illustrated by Michele Rocchetti for pre-intermediate-level learners.

Uncle Tom's Cabin page 31
Illustration by Michele Rocchetti in Heart of Darkness. © Helbling Languages


Plot summary:

Uncle Tom is a good slave but his kind master, Mr Shelby, is in debt. He must sell his farm or Tom to pay his debts. He sells Tom to a slave trader. So Tom has to leave his wife and children and the community of slaves on the farm. Follow Tom on an emotional journey through the terrible reality of slavery and racial prejudice. Who will Tom meet on the way and will he manage to survive all the suffering?

Twelve Years a Slave was adapted by David A. Hill and illustrated by Giuseppe Palumbo for intermediate-level learners.

Plot summary:

Solomon Northup was kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery. This is his story of his twelve years as a slave. Solomon paints a clear picture of the life of a slave, the endless work and the cruel treatment, where people are treated without any humanity. Find out how Solomon was kidnapped, about his terrible journey South and his three very different masters. How did Solomon survive? And how did Solomon become a free man once more?

Read our tips on using the novels in the classroom here:

Contemporary voices

Contemporary African literature is full of powerful voices who talk about African culture, heritage and identity. One such author is Nigerian Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You can read an extract from one of her stories My Mother, the Crazy African in our culture course, World Around on the website of the course

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie World Around portrait 2
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Meet more contemporary African authors by browsing these websites:

Read more about Africa

In the culture course World Around by Maria Cleary, Unit 12 is dedicated to Africa, and it talks about history, culture, poetry and literature. 

The website called is another good resource to learn more about the continent and especially Africa Day.