Sunday, June 1, 2008


Africa - The Dark Continent, Heart of Darkness, source of frightening news headlines, famines, genocidal conflicts, eye-brow raising antics by politicians, economic mismanagement on a monumental scale, tales of physical brutality beyond comprehension, epicenter of unexpected pathogens and diseases. Is there anything good to be said? Well - yes.

While there may be much substance to the above litany, it is an unbalanced picture. Africa is a place that challenges the imagination and comprehension. It is large, for one thing. Much larger than the scales would seem to indicate. You can fit all of Western Europe, all of China, and all of the USA (including Alaska) into Africa and still have space leftover.

And it is an ancient continent. Long a central part of the old land mass called Gondwanaland, Africa has an antiquity of life hardly matched elsewhere. It is, of course, the source of all modern humans; modern people finally bursting out of its confines some 50-100,000 years ago moving across the Red Sea and quickly filling up the rest of the world. There is a diversity of human life in Africa far richer than anywhere else in the world. The morphological variety of the pygmies, Bantu, Nilotics, Khoi and Saan have no parallels anywhere else in the world.

Likewise, Africa has a stupefying diversity of languages including the fascinating and ancient Khoisan languages, also known as "click" languages for the tch! type sounds used in their speech, which are found nowhere else in the world. Listening to these sounds is an ear-opening experience (if you want to hear examples, get a hold of the old 1980 movie, The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which there are several instances of Saan dialogue using this ancient language form).

Up until just over a hundred years ago, there were still large swaths of the continent that were uncharted and undocumented. Great white spaces on the map into which people could disappear and onto which one could project all sorts of imaginings and wishes. Indeed, there are still such nooks and crannies: every now and then you read of some expedition, such as the one I came across a couple of years ago about a group of scientists seeking remnant dinosaur populations up some unexplored tributary of the Congo River.

And there are mysteries galore. The ancient Christian kingdom of Ethiopia exerted a fascination on the European imagination for centuries, fed by its remoteness interspersed with occasional unexpected contact such as when thirty Ethiopian ambassadors visited Europe in 1306. Ignorance is always the door for projection and Ethiopia certainly was on the receiving end of such projection. The mythical Prester John, a supposed Christian king in the east somewhere or in Ethiopia, captured the imagination of Europeans in the Middle Ages. The mysterious Sir John Mandeville in his travels mentions Prester John. Not only were Europeans seeking religious brethren, but in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, there was always the hope, while Christian lands were falling like leaves to the autumn wind of the invading Arab armies, that a Christian army under Prester John would appear to help reverse the situation.

Ethiopia is a source of much wonder. How, and when and why did Christianity take such firm root there? Is the ark of the covenant possibly stuck away in a hidden cave as some believe? How did such a rural and undeveloped nation manage to be one of the two spots in Africa to retain its independence through the period of European colonization? How were they able to defeat a modern European army (annihilating the invading Italian army at the battle of Adwa in 1896 and inflicting a casualty rate of greater than 50%)?

Was it Ethiopia - or possibly Somalia - that was the mysterious land of Punt to which the ancient Egyptians travelled and with whom they traded nearly four thousand years ago, bringing back exotic woods, spices, dwarves?

In the area of what became Tanzania, occurs the gripping and entirely improbable story of the German light cruiser SMS Königsberg in World War I which became blockaded in the Rufiji Delta between Mozambique and Tanganyika. Captain Max Loof remained in place for many months, tying up numerous British Naval ships in the operation. Ultimately though, the SMS Königsberg was finally sunk (actually holed and settled into the mud) by the British in July 1915.

Captain Loof was not out of action though, and offloaded his main armaments, mounted them on carriages and joined the indomitable German regional commander, General Lettow-Vorbeck. General Lettow-Vorbeck proceeded to conduct a truly astonishing campaign, lugging the Königsberg's cannon all over East Africa, popping up periodically to ambush allied forces, engage them in battle and then melt away into the bush again. At one point he received some minimal but critical resupplies all the way from Germany - via dirigible! This little reported corner of World War I which tied up some quarter of a million Allied forces, only came to a close on November 14, 1918, three days after the conclusion of the Armistice in Europe, when General Lettow-Vorbeck was handed a telegram informing him of the news from Germany.

Travelling further down the East African coast there is the fascinating evidence of long past trading ties with the orient in the remains of Chinese porcelain goods scattered among a string of trading entrepots on the coast.

There is also the exotic kingdom of Zanzibar, a group of islands off the East African Coast and under the rule of the Sultan of Oman from 1698 onwards. It is an amazing amalgam of Africa and Arabia with trading tentacles stretching from the mainland to Arabia and Asia, trading in the exotica of spices and ivory and tragically serving as the capital of the East African slave trade. The local architecture, customs and art reflect the astonishing contributions of the different populations who have settled and melded together here: Arabs, Persians, Indians, Portuguese, British and various mainland Africa groups. (Did you know that Freddy Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, was born Farrokh Bulsara in Stone Town, Zanzibar? What a winding path that must have been.)

Another island off the southeast coast, though really almost a miniature continent of its own, is the island of Madagascar. Madagascar has been separate from Africa for 160 million years and actually, until 80 million years ago was a part of the Indian subcontinent. Having been separate from all other landmasses for so long, it has developed remarkably unique wildlife, including most famously, the Roc. Man is a late-comer to the island. Most amazingly, humans did not show up on the scene until 1,500 or 2,000 years ago. Even more incredibly, rather than coming a couple of hundred miles from across the Madagascar Straight, the initial settlers sailed several thousand miles from the east from the Malagasy and Indonesian Islands.

In the southeast of mainland Africa, there are the ever mysterious remains of Great Zimbabwe, the stone city that was inhabited from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries before being abandoned and for which there is little obvious antecedent or successor anywhere else in the region (or in Africa for that matter). What a wonder to be an explorer in the 1800s when you might come across a whole city such as Great Zimbabwe, Machu Pichu in Peru, or the Mayan cities in Central America.

In South Africa there are the fascinating Khoi and Saan with their ancient life styles as well as the even more ancient rock carvings scattered all across southern Africa. It is easily overlooked that the Khoi and Saan were the actual inhabitants of what is today South Africa when, in the sixteen and seventeen hundreds, the massive rivers of Dutch and then English migration came washing over the southern shores and the Bantu deluge came pouring in from the north.

In Namibia are the moaning sands of Swakopmund, the coast line scattered with diamonds washed out to sea from an ancient river system and the creeping sands of the Namib desert, marching further out to sea every year and making the coastal maps so unreliable that it garnered the moniker of the Skeleton Coast, reflecting the large numbers of ships that routinely came to grief on the changed shoreline. Supposedly, these advancing and shifting sands and dunes every now and then regurgitate wrecks of unknown ships, some dating back hundreds of years.

Namibia has a tremendously complex strand of ethnic groups ranging from the remnants of German settlers, to the Herero with their traditional and striking Victorian attire adopted from missionaries, to the Rehoboth Basters, to the Saan in their desert seclusion, to the Ovambo peoples, among others. There are also the geographical oddities such as the Caprivi Strip, that arm of Namibia wiggling its way across southern Africa, the colonial remnant of the failed effort to connect German Southwest Africa (Namibia) to German East Africa (Tanzania).

Coming on up the western coast are the huge swaths of the ancient kingdom of Angola, and then the punishing outpouring of the Congo River which drains an almost inconceivably large area of Central Africa, an area about the size of the entire USA. Proceeding up the river, you enter Heart of Darkness territory.

Further north is the historical heartland of the Bantu peoples in Cameroon. Along the Bight of Africa there are all sorts interesting kingdoms to conjure with: Ghana, Benin, Ashanti, Mali, Timbuktu, etc. Here also occur many of the stories of early exploration of Africa by such as the delightfully named Mungo Park in the 1790s and then a hundred years later the intrepid British female traveler/explorer Mary Kingsley.

It is not all tragedy and inhumanity and disease, though those elements do exist. My father's career took him to Nigeria where we lived for a couple of years in the early sixties. I recall his comments offered in horror, sorrow and awe, after having visited an old colonial fort and having walked through the cemetery, headstone after headstone of some young man in his prime, struck down by the diseases of this tropical, humid coast.

With this huge treasure chest of stories and fascinating history, where are these stories rendered for children? We are pitifully underserved about this fascinating continent. There are comprehensible reasons but we are still left beggared. One issue is a simple function of history. Outside of Ethiopia (and Egypt which we will deal with in a separate Pigeon Post), there was no literacy in Africa up until five or six hundred years ago, and even then most of that was restricted to religious commentary in the Sahel. Mass literacy is really a product of the second half of the twentieth century and even today, functional literacy is comparatively low at perhaps 60%.

Combine this fact with the extreme poverty of the continent and you have the worst of both worlds - a recent and still not universal acquisition of literacy meaning that there has been little time and few people to create an indigenous population of children's stories combined with an incapacity locally to demand those stories in written form. In fact, the poverty in Africa is even worse than the numbers would indicate. There are a few countries including Nigeria and Angola with tremendous revenues arising from raw materials such as oil and other abundant resources which would indicate that there is a lot of money available but it falsely inflates the averages as most of that money stays in governmental coffers and/or the pockets of officials and, therefore, never relieves the poverty of people.

People who are hungry and have no money for books cannot create the demand for the domestic literature which we seek. Another issue is that Africa, large as it is, has up until recent times, been very thinly populated. For example, Egypt, with its intense cultivation of the Nile, was, through the millennia of its history, one of the more densely populated regions. In ancient time it had a population of 2 - 5 million people compared to today's 80 million. So, when taken altogether - only a very recent history of writing, not many people, even fewer of them who can read and write, and hardly anyone with the money to buy books - put that way, the dearth of stories becomes very comprehensible.

A further complicating factor are the delicate issues arising from colonialism and racism. There is often resentment when outsiders write the stories of local people. This has certainly been an issue in Africa, exacerbated by the failed variants of the ideology of communalism which were so disastrously prevalent in post-colonial Africa. Even though most African countries were colonies for only a brief time, that experience has left a legacy of resentment that has often discouraged outsiders from writing about the place out of a misplaced sense of respect and courtesy. When you compare this to other places such as Asia you can see how disastrous this can be. I don't have any reliable study, but my impression is that perhaps half or more of all our stories for children about Asia are by people from outside the continent.

Even though there are all these comprehensible reasons for the dearth of great stories of and about Africa, there are still some good ones out there. This is especially the case when one expands the horizons a little bit by including much of the literature arising from the colonial period which often was written by people who loved the continent and the people of Africa, but whose terms and perspective are anachronistic to our times and ears.

Below are a collection of stories that we think your children will find fascinating and engaging and which might build an interest in the whole picture of Africa. We have gone light on the misery literature (slave trading, inequities of colonialism, etc.) not because we intend to belittle that, but because that story is already so prevalent that we think the interesting side of the continent needs to be accentuated in balance. We have also gone lightly on the folk-tales, the one area where there is a reasonable population of titles, because that genre probably warrants its own Pigeon Post. Are there others you would suggest?

Picture Books

Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain; A Nandi Tale by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Beatriz Vidal Recommended

Why Mosquitoes Buzz in Peoples Ears by Verna Aardema and illustrated by Diane Dillon and Leo Dillon Recommended

Sosu's Call by Meshack Asare Suggested

Uncommon Traveler: Mary Kingsley in Africa by Don Brown Suggested

Beat the Story-Drum, Pum-Pum by Ashley Bryan Suggested

Mansa Musa by Khephra Burns and illustrated by Leo Dillon and Diane Dillon Suggested

Jamela's Dress by Niki Daly Suggested

A Story, a Story: An African Tale by Gail E. Haley Suggested

Africa Is Not a Country by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove and illustrated by Anne Sibley O'Brien Suggested

Anansi, the Spider: A Tale from the Ashanti by Gerald McDermott Suggested

Zomo the Rabbit by Gerald McDermott Suggested

Traveling Man by James Rumford Suggested

Abiyoyo by Pete Seeger and illustrated by Michael Hays Recommended

The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant by Jean de Brunhoff Highly Recommended

Jambo Means Hello by Muriel L. Feelings Suggested

Sundiata by David Wisniewski Recommended

Independent Readers

Born Free: A Lioness of Two Worlds by Joy Adamson Recommended

Life and Times of Michael K. by J. M. Coetzee and illustrated by Michael Coetzee Suggested

Going Solo by Roald Dahl Highly Recommended

A Bone from a Dry Sea by Peter Dickinson Suggested

The Flame Trees of Thika by Elspeth Huxley Suggested

The Royal Kingdoms of Ghana, Mali and Songhay by Pat McKissack and illustrated by Fredrick McKissack Suggested

The Ancient Kushites by Liz Sonneborn Suggested

Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe Recommended

King Solomon's Mines by H. Rider Haggard Highly Recommended

Young Adult

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe Suggested

Bill Bryson's African Diary by Bill Bryson Recommended

Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen Suggested

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski Highly Recommended

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith Highly Recommended

The Washing of the Spears by Donald R. Morris Recommended

North of South by Shiva Naipaul Recommended

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton Suggested

The Hot Zone by Richard Preston Highly Recommended

The Sunbird by Wilbur A. Smith Suggested

The African Queen by C. S. Forester Suggested

The Forest People by Colin M. Turnbull Recommended

No comments:

Post a Comment