Bringing words to life through story telling

By Kaula Nhongo
February 2013
Women in Business
Children who learn how to read at an early age tend to love school immediately. Their self-worth and social skills improve and they are better prepared to be successful in life.

This, according to Helvi Wheeler, was the main drive behind the inception of Yambeka Children Media (YCM); a company that publishes children’s books in African vernacular.

Wheeler’s story is that of luck, fate and hard work. She has risen from an illiterate childhood to an educator in her own right, proving that nothing is impossible.

The 35-year-old grew up in refugee camps in Zambia and Angola because her parents had fled the country during the liberation struggle. At the age of 10, she returned to Namibia to start school for the very first time. The only education she had received at that time was from her father who had taught her the alphabet while in the refugee camps.

As ambitious as she was, she was not able to pass Grade 12. Still driven and hungry for success and with a passion for acting, Wheeler tried her chances at the University of Namibia (Unam) where she aced an interview to study Performing Arts. Sadly, she did not qualify because of her Grade 12 grades.

Broke but not broken, she looked for other means to bring her dream to life. She did odd jobs for two years and managed to raise enough money to go to the United States of America.

There, she met and married her husband in 2007. While pregnant, her gynaecologist advised her to read to her unborn baby. Because she wanted her unborn son to understand and be able to speak Oshiwambo just like her, she looked for story books in her native language on the internet but could not find any.

“After inquiring from the people back here at home, I discovered that there were no vernacular story books from Namibia,” she says.

After her baby was born, Wheeler took pictures of her child’s body parts and made a picture-book where she named the different body parts in Oshiwambo. She posted the picture-book on www.lulu.com, where it became an instant hit, as other Namibians around the world wouldn’t stop watching and spreading the word. They even wanted her to send them copies of the book. This effectively gave birth to the idea of starting YCM.

“The picture-book was not even professionally done. But I discovered that people were interested and were craving for these books and stories,” she narrates.

Before she could set things in motion, Wheeler and her family moved to Kenya in 2009 to do volunteer work for children. However, she still held on to the idea of starting her literature company some day.

In Kenya, she set everything in motion and visited local book stores to check whether or not they had any children’s books in Swahili but they did not. After establishing YCM with her own savings, Wheeler put pen to paper and started writing her first official book in Swahili for children between the ages of three and seven entitled, Baby’s First Kiswahili Book, which helps kids identify simple words and objects.

In December 2010, she returned to Namibia, eager to do in her country what she had done in Kenya. She published her second book, Linamwenyo (“Animals”, in Oshivambo); a picture book with the names of common animals, for children aged between three and nine, in Oshiwambo and English.

While she yearned to do more, she would need funds to publish more books. Fortunately, the National Arts Council heard her plight and intervened by giving her money to help publish three more books; Nehoya and the Crocodile, Kishikishi the Bad Monster and The Jackal and the Hyena.

Wheeler writes the fictional stories she grew up listening to. Her picture books depict nature and its animals.

“People do not sit around the fire telling stories anymore. Instead, they put them in books. I want the world to know about our African stories and be proud of our culture. Our children know about Cinderella and many other European fairytales. Why can we not learn about African tales told by us?” she asks.

In a bid to leave a legacy for Namibian children, Wheeler has managed to get her books sold in local bookstores like Book Den, Eduments and the Hilton gift shop. The National Library has also started storing her books. The colourful soft and hard covered books costs range from N$50 to N$70 each.

Five of Wheeler’s books were last year awarded the Literacy Award at the Namibian Children’s Book Forum for their outstanding contribution to Namibia’s literacy.

Last year, YCM collaborated with Franco Namibia Cultural Centre (FNCC), Goethe Zentrum, the American Cultural Center, the Spanish Embassy and Unesco towards establishing the first Namibian youth book fair. This is to help develop a reading culture among children and the youth in Namibia, with the aim of sensitising the general public on the importance of reading and writing.

During the book fair, YCM and Unesco visited more than five public schools and read the traditional YCM stories to the children.

In future, YCM plans to start producing educational games, flashcards, posters and puzzles. “I would also like to see the books turned into cartoons for local television stations,” Wheeler says.

Wheeler’s story is a testament to the fact that one’s start in life does not need to determine their future. Rather, it is the passion and determination that ultimately do. PF