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Africa

Fighting stereotypes with stories

Technology brings people closer together - but are we really free of preconceptions towards each other? At a reading festival for young people in Germany, an author from South Africa tries to do away with prejudice.

Chatter and occasional laughter fill the small conference room in Bonn's "Haus der Geschichte," a museum devoted to German history. It's one of the venues for a two-week series of literature events for children and young people called the Käpt'n Book reading festival. Around 50 teenagers have come here on a day out from school to meet Lutz van Dijk, a writer from South Africa.

One of them is Tom. He's never been to Africa, yet it evokes quite clear images in his head. "When I think of Africa, I very quickly think of poverty," the 16-year-old says. And he is not the only one of the teenagers who immediately associates "poverty" or "poor children" with the continent.

It's a stereotype that Lutz van Dijk often encounters among young Europeans. The 61-year-old author was born in Germany, lived in the Netherlands for a while and 15 years ago moved to Cape Town, where he founded HOKISA, a home for young people affected by HIV and AIDS. It's still the center of his life. Many of his books - like Themba, which was also turned into a feature film - tell the stories of young Africans.

Twice a year van Dijk comes to Europe and reads his stories to children and teenagers in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere. "To give an idea of the diversity of Africa's different people, countries and its [amazing] nature - that's something I try to achieve during such a reading tour," he says.

Deutschland Autor Lutz van Dijk beim Käpt'n-Book-Festival in Bonn (DW/M. Rohwer-Kahlmann)

Lutz van Dijk engages the teenagers at the reading event at Bonn's Haus der Geschichte

A way to relate

His reading tour stop at Bonn's Käpt'n Book festival, however, features surprisingly little reading. Instead, van Dijk engages with the teenagers. He asks them questions, gives them a beginner's lesson in the Xhosa language and, most importantly, he tells them stories about young people he knows in South Africa. That's his way of breaking down stereotypes.

"They understand the dreams of this young generation. They see that they have the same hopes of falling in love, having a party, enjoying sport, being not hungry, having hopes for a better future," he says. And indeed, the teenagers listen attentively as he gives them a glimpse of everyday life in Africa.

Tom, for his part, enjoyed the time with van Dijk. He says hearing about life in Africa reminded him how spoiled he is - and it made him curious. "I'd really like to go to Africa," he says. "Someone just telling you something is never the same as actually seeing it. Most of the time it has more of an impact when you see something for yourself."

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