To be blunt, it took me a while to get on the African literature bandwagon.
Growing up it was infinitely easier to lay hands on Disney story books, Mary-Kate and Ashley books, Charlotte’s Web and the like of Thomas- the Little Engine that Could, than it was to find books with characters that looked like me, had lives like mine, parents like mine; stories I could easily relate to. Perhaps because of this, I can clearly recall all the storybooks with girls of colour- they weren’t that many. Pochahntas (Disney book), American Girls (slave) and King Mufasa’s daughter.
As I grew up, from Sweet Valley High books to Harlequins I followed pop culture and what was readily available but pop culture didn’t follow me nor mine. We aren’t exactly popular (just populous). While it took me a while I finally got here, to the wonderful world of African fiction- for fun. Rather than the (mostly) tired texts we were made to read in secondary school. The need for the good representation of African children in the arts and media today can’t be overstated. As such I have been ecstatic with my recent discovery of contemporary African writers writing for kids.
One of such books is Yaa Traps Death in a Basket by Ghanaian Malaka Grant. In this tale that reads like a fireside fable, your grandmother would tell you on a memorable night. Yaa an unremarkable girl, neither talented, clever nor beautiful is presented as a pebble in her parents’ shoe. They have little use for her but to send her to fetch things. They would rather not be saddled to her for life and thus, send her on an impossible mission to sell a baby goat. The journey might have been impossible but for Yaa’s kindness, earnestness, appreciation, and courage. Wherever she went she displayed this value and soon enough the girl who was a clumsy dancer and screeched rather than sang ended up a talented courageous huntress with gifts from demi-gods. The story follows her conquests and her climax at her trapping death and the lesson to be learned from that.
I gave this book to my nine-year-old mentee and after two days- considerable shorter time than it took her to finish the kid’s version of The Life of Mandela mind you- she could recite her favourite bits of the tale and of course, the moral. In her words, Yaa is “like Cinderella but without the man”. I hadn’t even thought of it that way. But I had seen the simplicity and ease with which the author shared heritage without patronizing culture, had noticed the strength of the young African girl protagonist, the lessons of endurance, fairness, truth conquering evil, consequences of one’s actions and more expertly woven into the tale without becoming downright didactic. I particularly like how the topic of death is treated as an eventuality, not patronizing kids’ ability to understand.
Ms. Grant’s newest work is highly recommended to give our children an alternative to the mainstream- something they could read in two days or less. Read enthusiastically because it is much easier to imagine something close to your own.
And perhaps as African literature develops and more African writers venture in children’s literature, an author may eventually get Disney’s nod and we could finally have a real African Disney Princess, like the Chinese have Mulan- because no, the Lion King doesn’t count. I can hope.
By Monique Kwachou