As a child, Ada Ari learned about the various Nigerian folktales of her culture from elders ranging from her grandparents and parents to her aunts and older cousins.
After moving to the U.S. from Nigeria in the mid to late 90s, Ari said her appreciation for her culture grew.
“Coming to America, I realized my culture and my heritage that I took for granted growing up back home is kind of what makes me unique and different and special,” she said. “It’s not something to hide behind or be ashamed of. It’s something to be really proud of and share with the world.”
Now Ari, a Gaithersburg resident, is on a mission to share these and other folktales from many African cultures with her children – Olisa, 4, and Kosi, 5 – and with other kids. She’s turned the folktales into children’s books and launched the program African Storytelling Reimagined.
“That’s where I started. … Why not tell the stories that came from Africa?” said Ari, 38. “I wanted it to be more than just, like, a fun story with a spider or a turtle, which of course is a way to grab the attention of children of all backgrounds that any parent would love to have for their kids. But I figured it’d be a great way to introduce children to a completely different world.”
In early 2022, Ari published her first book, The Spider’s Thin Legs, which is based on a folktale from Ghana. The book tells the story of a spider who doesn’t follow his mother’s instructions, gets distracted and disobeys the rules, leading to spiders all over the world having long, thin legs. Besides having a moral (listen to your mother), the story touches on counting and numbers and introduces Anansi, a figure in Ashanti culture.
After publishing The Spider’s Thin Legs, Ari published The Turtle’s Cracked Shell: An Mbekwu Story, a tale based on a Nigerian folktale that teaches the importance of sharing and being kind, along with a series of children’s books teaching African languages including Swahili, Yoruba and Ewe.
Authors like Ari, and books like hers, are still rare in the publishing world. The Bethesda-based organization We Need Diverse Books collects statistics on publishing demographics, pointing to a 2018 New York Times analysis showing that 89% of books were written by white authors and 11% by people of color.
Around the same time Ari published The Spider’s Thin Legs, she launched African Storytelling Reimagined, hosting events at Montgomery County Public Library and Nordstrom locations. They involve not just stories but geography, music, dance, artifacts and fabrics for a “culturally immersive experience,” she said.
A video Ari posted to YouTube shows some of her school and library visits, with pupils listening to a story, dancing, playing with instruments and trying on distinctive fashions.
“These story times, they’re really engaging because, first of all, we learn about the continent of Africa, the specific country, then we all get out our seats and we learn a dance that comes from there,” she said. “So, imagine the music, movement. I mean, kids and parents love to get up and move around. Then the story time is very animated.”
She’ll present a story time with Spider at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 11 at the Bethesda library, at 7400 Arlington Road. Ari also hopes to aid the African countries where the folktales come from. Although the library readings are free, she said 10% of the proceeds from her children’s book sales are donated to orphanages in Africa.
Anita Vassallo, director of Montgomery County Public Libraries, said Ari engages the audiences attending her programs, whether they’re adults, teens or younger kids.
“The mark of a good performer or presenter is that they can adapt their presentation to the audience kind of on the fly,” she said. “That was one thing that my staff really appreciated about Ms. Ari, that she was able to kind of read the audience and really reach out and engage with them.”
Vassallo said that programs like Ari’s help unify people.
“We do these types of family programs, and we do love to bring in performers, storytellers, dance/music programs that highlight other cultures because Montgomery County is such a diverse community,” she said. “So in addition to things that resonate personally with the residents because of their own family backgrounds, it gives the opportunity for everyone else to learn and celebrate another culture that your neighbor or a classmate in school might come from. So, it all helps to kind of bond everybody together.”
Ari said she utilizes her books in her program as a tool to introduce young audiences to African culture. Not only are the storybooks informative of various African cultures but also on the back of each book is a map of Africa with the African country featured in the folktale highlighted. Cards with information about African culture are included at the end of the book.
Telling these folktales is significant to Ari because they continue to bring life to the folktales, she and other African native grew up hearing.
“Keeping culture alive is crucial to keeping history alive, in a sense, keeping people alive,” she said. “There’s lots of languages that are just dying, essentially because people are no longer speaking it; they’re traveling and moving abroad; they’re moving to the United States; they’re picking up English as a predominant language,” she said.
Ari said her goal with her program is to help children become global citizens at a young age.
“It’s important because whether or not we have passports, given the world of today, there’s a very high chance that we’re all going to meet people from different backgrounds as we go through out life,” she said. “So, it’s important to realize diversity, and understand that there’s so much more than just Montgomery County, Maryland. You literally have a higher world out there.”