Who stole the lion’s roar? Why is everyone floating in the air? What happened to the sea? Only the fearless Jabali and musical Sauti can solve it! Jabali and Sauti love to help people (and creatures!) all over Tisa, solving all sorts of mysteries from the mundane to the magical…
Best friends Jabali and Sauti are the young protagonists of a new captivating series launched by the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF). Their mission? To ignite a love for reading among young minds while celebrating East Africa’s rich storytelling heritage.
‘The Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ was launched in September, offering a diverse array of content, including storybooks, comics, audio tales, animations, and activities, each serving as a gateway to the enchanting world of Tisa. Rooted in Kenyan heritage, culture, and storytelling, Tisa – which translates as ‘nine’ – represents the world’s nine realms, echoing the Swahili coast.
With funding from the LEGO Foundation, AKF commissioned three Kenyan creative studios to create the Tisa universe, the characters, and their adventures. The stories and universe have been designed to engage children aged 4-13 and nurture a culture of reading for joy.
The playful concept behind the new series reflects AKF’s mission to give girls and boys the best possible start in life. AKF supports diverse education and community programmes that combine literacy and love of reading, with creativity, curiosity, and compassion, and aim to enable children to learn about and interact effectively with the world.
For Kenyan children, reading is often restricted to the school compound and disconnected from the country’s storytelling culture. Community libraries are one of the very few “third places” where children can spend time outside of school or their homes. Libraries are equally important for parents and other adults in the community, creating safe spaces where everyone can come together to read, play, and learn from each other.
Yet, community libraries tend to have limited funds to refresh their shelves, and the books they do have often rapidly degrade in the hands of young children. In many cases, books are donated through international organisations and networks, however they are not always reflective of East Africa’s diverse identities.
Radine Sim Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University who has been referred to as the ‘mother of multicultural children’s literature’ is famed for her metaphor, which emphasises the importance of representation in literature. “Books are mirrors when readers see their own lives reflected in the pages,” she argues. “Books are windows when they allow readers a view of lives and stories that are different from their own.”
“Books are mirrors when readers see their own lives reflected in the pages. Books are windows when they allow readers a view of lives and stories that are different from their own.”
Radine Sim Bishop
Recognising that well intentioned book donations often provide ‘windows’, AKF engaged partners to create ‘mirrors’. The Tisa universe and the ‘The Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ were developed under the leadership of three Kenyan studios: Kikapu.Studios, which seeks to design solutions for social impact and change through the African lens; The LAM Sisterhood, an award-winning African feminist content studio filling the world with stories that centre African women; and Studio Ang, an independent production studio that creates and tells original and commissioned stories.
AKF tested the materials amongst children and parents in Kenya’s coastal regions, including Lamu County and Mombasa. The participatory sessions helped to shape the authenticity of the characters of Jabali and Sauti and revealed the significance of adult roles in the narratives. Bibi, Jabali’s grandmother, grew to evoke familiarity and warmth, whilst Jabali’s father, Abbah, represents positive father figures which are often absent in children’s stories.
The variety of materials created capture Kenyan storytelling in literary, audio, and visual forms, catering to diverse interests, ages, and cultures. Most content has been produced in both Swahili and English, so that parents and children can engage, enjoy, and amplify. ‘The Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ package also includes activities, so that children can play along and immerse themselves in the Tisa universe.
So far, 380 community libraries in rural and urban areas across Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have received the audio stories. Most are also hosting the storybooks and comics on their shelves. AKF has looked beyond this network of libraries, sharing content with partner organisations and singing a memorandum of understanding with The Kenya National Library Service, which will be placing the print materials into all 64 of its libraries across Kenya.
To reach an even wider audience, the animations are being aired weekly on Akili! Kids TV, Kenya’s first and only educational children’s and family TV channel. As a result, the ‘Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ have reached over 4 million viewers, whilst requests on where to buy the storybooks are flooding in.
In a letter received by Akili! Kids TV, one young viewer wrote to Jabali and Sauti, “I would like to be a mystery solver like you. You are my inspiration!”. Another wrote, “I love your show very much because it is interesting. You make my happy when I am sad.”
“I love your show very much because it is interesting. You make my happy when I am sad.”
Akili! Kids TV viewer in a letter to Jabali and Sauti
All the ‘The Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ stories are available on AKF’s Learning Hub, where children and parents outside of East Africa can enjoy them too. Echoing Rudine Sims Bishop’s theory, AKF intends the ‘The Mysteries of Jabali and Sauti’ to act as both mirrors and windows to children everywhere, nurturing a pluralistic understanding of the world and igniting a joy for reading – one story at a time.