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Mohamed Hassan: Man on a quest to promote East Africa's literature internationally

 Mohamed Hassan during the interview with The Standard at the Sharjah Internation Book fair in the UAE. [Caroline Chebet, Standard]

You might soon have access to vernacular and Swahili audiobooks on your smartphone once an application that promotes the consumption of African literature is launched.

The application, known as Kitab Cloud, is an ambitious programme spearheaded by a Somali-born publisher Mohammed Hassan. It is set to bring back the disappearing African literature and ease online access in a move to preserve indigenous languages.  

“Many other cultures around the world are preserving their culture in books, they are promoting their own literature to ensure continuity of their languages but nobody seems to be keen in promoting African literature in indigenous languages, something that places our cultures under threat,” said Hassan during the 41st edition of the Sharjah International Book Fair in the UAE.

The economist who moved out of Somalia in 1978 says African books currently being authored in English are further threatening the continuity of indigenous literature.

“Many Africans moving into western countries are majorly refugees from the horn of Africa. When these people move, the language gets lost and they lose touch with their culture as they finally get assimilated,” said Hassan.

The disappearing cultures, especially in the diaspora, according to Hassan, is what pushed him to finally start a publishing house in 1994, that has since published over 250 books. The books drawn from Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia are mostly for children, about Africa and Islam.

“Someone has to promote our cultures and more so the indigenous languages no matter how far from home we are. I wanted African children to easily access books written in native languages so it can spark learning of these languages and the cultures,” said Hassan.

Hassan plans to launch the application in February 2023. 

Authors will be able to upload their vernacular and Kiswahili audio books online and allow readers to subscribe and listen to the stories.  Already, the application is on Google Play but with a few e-books, audiobooks and podcasts in Swahili, Arabic, Somali, and Amharic.

“We have to incorporate technology to democratize education and knowledge and make them more affordable and accessible to everyone. The application gives people the opportunity to read books whenever they want, wherever they want on their mobile phones,” said Hassan.

Hassan added that compiling the collections in audiobooks eases access and widens the reach.

"Kenya, for example, has 42 tribes and if we have books from every tribe, that means we will be preserving 42 native works of literature.  The problem is that writers are even further shifting from writing in Swahili to English, which is not native in Africa," he said.

Hassan, however, says that governments can help in preserving native literary cultures through incentives to authors who write in native languages.

"It takes an initiative of a nation to salvage a dying culture and since we have the writers and native speakers, it only requires investments from both public and private sectors," said Hassan.