Seeing self in story is vital for kids

Phillipa Namutebi Kabali-Kagwa is a storyteller, executive coach and facilitator. Here she writes about the importance of seeing the self in stories as a child …

I grew up in Uganda in a home full of stories with songs, children’s games, tongue twisters – in Luganda and Lumasaba, my father and mother’s languages. They were full of people who looked like me, in a landscape that I could relate to, eating the same kind of foods. These stories awakened my imagination and my love of story.

In Grade 1, reading books opened up the world for me – but left me and my world out of the stories. The books I read had characters who were white: Dick and Dora, Cinderella and the Famous Five.

They lived in England, played under the chestnut tree or in the snow. They were blue eyed and blond. The only dark-skinned characters were black Sambo and Golliwogs, and I did not relate to them.

As a child I could not what was missing, but I remember an almost visceral reaction to stories where I was included. Those stories remain indelibly burned in my memory.

Like my first history book in Grade 3. I remember the two Ugandan folktales at the beginning of the book: Kintu and Nambi, the first man and woman in Buganda; and the story of Labong and Gipir from northern Uganda. These stories stirred something so deep, that when I had children I went to Uganda and looked for the book.

At 11 I was introduced to the Moses series written by Barbara Kimenye. These are a series of books about Moses and his friends who attend “Mukibi’s Educational Institute for the Sons of African Gentlemen”. We loved them. And when my daughter was in school in Cape Town, on one trip to Uganda, I found her books from the series.

Seeing oneself presented in a positive light in the books you read says to a child you are important. Your people impact this world too. Reading books by writers who are just like them says to them you too can be an author, a keeper of stories, a thinker, a linguist and an influencer.

In 2009, I said yes to an invitation to write three books – Kea Goes to School, Mkhulu and Me, and Tyres and Tubes – in CUP’s Rainbow Reading Series. I wanted to influence. The value of this struck home when I gave my seven-year-old son copies of the books. His face lit up and he asked, “Mummy, can you and I make a book about bugs? And can we be the authors?”

Reading and telling stories with your children is a powerful gift to them – it builds knowledge, language, imagination and school success.

For more information about the Nal’ibali “Story Power” campaign or to view Nal’ibali’s PSA promoting mother tongue languages, visit