Rwanda: Meet American Author Behind the First Kinyarwanda Fantasy Novel

On Friday, the Kigali Public Library will host a book launch organised by ImagineWe, a publishing house in Rwanda. The event is expected to last approximately two hours and will be attended by a diverse group of individuals, including friends, family, book enthusiasts, fans of the author, and regular patrons of the bookstore or venue.

American author Akilah A. Jeffery will captivate the audience by reading excerpts from the original edition of her book, “Wilda Silva, The Secret Keeper,” a delightful fantasy tale for children. Additionally, the attendees will have the pleasure of listening to selected passages from the Kinyarwanda version titled “Umwiru Wilda Silva,” expertly delivered by the staff of ImagineWe. There will be several copies of the book – the first Kinyarwanda fairytale – available for purchase, all of which will be personally signed by the author.

During a volunteering trip to Rwanda about a year ago, Jeffery swiftly recognized the need to translate her book into Kinyarwanda. “When I shared my book with some of the students, they expressed their enthusiasm to have books, but I didn’t have any to give them,” she said. “So I started looking for ways to have my book published in Rwanda, which led me to connect with ImagineWe.” The incredible power of storytelling, Jeffery says, is its ability to reach people wherever they may be. She shares a meaningful quote by African American leader Booker T. Washington: “Cast down your buckets where you are.”

Wilda Silva, an 11-year-old flutist, takes center stage in this novel. Set within the mystical woods, secrets abound in Wilda’s life. After moving with her mother to the quaint Pacific Northwest town of Belfair, she finds herself burdened with concealing her peculiar visions and her mother’s battle with alcoholism from her peers at school. As a gifted flutist, Wilda’s talent catches the attention of formidable shapeshifting fairies hailing from Africa, Asia, Scandinavia, and beyond. Gradually, the secrets she must safeguard grow increasingly perilous. Yet, amidst the hidden truths lies the most significant secret of all–one that Wilda must ultimately uncover about herself.

Through her volunteer work at Rwamagana Leaders School, Jeffery actively participated in a program supporting past graduates. This initiative aimed to empower them in making informed life choices and developing valuable skills for their professional journeys. It was during this experience that Jeffery had a profound realization–students face similar challenges regardless of their geographical location.

Jeffery’s fascination with Africa, like that of many black people of her generation, is a result of her ancestry. Many black people embraced the chance to celebrate their rich ancestry and culture while realising the historical backdrop of colonialism and oppression connected with these relationships. Similarly, Jeffery continuously incorporates this rich past within her artistic work. “I consider the entirety of Africa to be a part of me because my DNA map is spread all across Sub-Saharan Africa,” Jeffery said. “The Aziza fairies of Benin served as a source of inspiration while I was writing the book, and as I discovered while doing my research, there are fairy tales from all over the world, including West Africa, Asia, and Ireland. I also wanted the book to reflect that and to be representative of the people living in the multiethnic community in the Washington state city of Belfair.” Choosing to create a Kinyarwanda version of “Wilda Silva, The Secret Keeper” goes beyond a mere artistic decision; it serves as a resolute testament to the significance of both art and culture. “I am a strong advocate for the preservation and celebration of one’s language. As an African American, I understand the deep longing to forge connections with ancestral heritage and African roots through language–an aspect that had been regrettably lost in history.”

This came with its own problems. In the five to six months it took to bring this book to Rwandan readers, she and her distinguished translators at Imagine We, faced a daunting challenge: to navigate the intricate balance of transplanting a text deeply rooted in its country of origin while preserving the nuanced threads of history present in its original language. As a result, readers may encounter fascinating yet perplexing phrases, including inside references and local slang that add to the richness of the narrative but may require additional context to fully grasp their meaning. She explained that living in a place where it snows is one of the many things that Rwandans might not be able to relate to fully. Additionally, there aren’t many fairy tales published in Kinyarwanda, thus the book provides a lexicon that native translators haven’t previously had to deal with.

Imagine We and Jeffery explored various alternatives in the translation process, such as using descriptive phrases or compound words that could serve as substitutes for terms known to Kinyarwanda language speakers. Reflecting on this, Jeffery ruefully acknowledged the importance of having native speakers involved in the translation process.

Translation is an art that goes beyond mere linguistic substitution; it requires capturing the essence of the author’s voice, tone, intention, and style. Moreover, if a language lacks a specific word that exists in another language, it may limit our ability to think or express certain thoughts and emotions experienced by speakers of that language. “I also sought the valuable feedback of a friend who is fluent in Kinyarwanda to ensure the accuracy and authenticity of the translation,” she added.

Amidst a plethora of books centered around identity, “Wilda Silva, The Secret Keeper” distinguishes itself through its unwavering exploration of pertinent themes. Jeffery’s book delves into the complex issues of bullying, alcoholism, and the experiences of being a child with a parent facing addiction. Jeffery fondly recalls the kindness she experienced in Rwanda, noting the nurturing atmosphere of friendship and respect that prevails there. She added, however, the contrast she experiences in the United States as an educator. Jeffery underscores that tackling bullying is a matter of utmost seriousness in her educational endeavors.

“The experiences of young people I know who have had to deal with the problem of addiction in their families served as another inspiration for the book,” she said. “My intention was to depict and guide them, showing them effective coping mechanisms and highlighting the importance of seeking support from others. Furthermore, I aimed to convey to them the significant power and talents that young people possess, instilling a sense of confidence and self-belief. I emphasized the significance of avoiding bullying by promoting inclusivity, encouraging them to refrain from making assumptions, and treating everyone with respect.”

Jeffery hopes for more translation of books from diverse regions worldwide into various African languages. This would facilitate the expansion of access to different cultures and perspectives. “I think that people often underestimate just how big the readership is in Africa and how much people want to be able to read something in their languages,” she noted.