- Representing Africa in Children's Literature
Mokili ezali monene! This is an old Lingala proverb meaning "The world is big," which fairly accurately characterizes the world of Africa, an immense continent with a land mass more than three times that of the continental United States. And it is the challenge facing Dr. Vivian Yenika-Agbaw as she explores the multiple realities in children's literature about Africa.
When we look at Africa on a world map, we soon learn that it is not just one big country (as many Americans think), and that it is more than just a jungle plagued with Ebola fever outbreaks. From the northern deserts and Atlas Mountains, to the equatorial forests and the Mountains of the Moon and on to the cradle of humanity in Olduvai gorge and Ngoro Ngoro Crater, Africa is amazingly diverse. Its complexity is staggering. This is the reality of Yenika-Agbaw's playing field on her adventure of classifying and revealing the nature of the traditions, themes, motivations, influences, and focuses on writers of children's literature in today's Africa.
Yenika-Agbaw addresses many aspects of children's literature, beginning with images of West Africa in children's books. Two images persist. On the one hand, Africa is perceived as backward, barbaric, and plagued [End Page 253] with pestilence and famine. On the other hand, the images can assume an overly romanticized view of Africa by black writers with an Afrocentric orientation. Although this may be a more agreeable orientation than the negative one noted above, it too is not accurate. A balance must be found between the fantasy and the reality.
She also decries the view of African culture in picturebooks as communicating misinformation on several fronts: Africa as a mythical home or a sort of Arcadian recollection, a vulnerable Africa prone to invasions, and Africa as a place where people share space with animals (suggesting that Africans are no different from the domestic and wild animals with which they share space). Yenika-Agbaw does identify one positive cultural image, from Margaret Musgrove's Ashanti to Zulu, African Traditions, which portrays Africans as dignified people with varied cultures.
One of the somewhat shocking and problematic themes that she considers is that of certain traditional beliefs inherent in African religion and pertaining to childhood, and in particular the practice among some African ethnic groups of sacrificing human life in order to ensure good harvests. "The Rain Came" (Ogot) treats this traditional practice in a very sensitive, anthropological manner, not condemning the ethnic group that has been practicing this custom for thousands of years. Coming from the Western frame of mind and experience (also Western-influenced people, like Africans colonized by Europeans) there are clearly some pretty strong feelings opposing this tradition.
Yenika-Agbaw devotes one full chapter to African folktales, addressing first the polemic that some of the cultural heritage, including folktales, creates when imposed on the youth. Some of those age-old practices have been brought into question in recent years, such as female circumcision. Many of the young girls in these regions, where the elders force the girls to go through the grueling rite of passage, have resisted and rebelled against it, thus standing up to and questioning tradition. Yenika-Agbaw is concerned with some well-meaning Afrocentric writers from the West who support the "authentic" traditions. She points out that if it were their own children that were undergoing this seemingly ruthless act of mutilation, they probably wouldn't be so keen on honoring and fulfilling this questionable tradition. Culture, as she notes, is a continually evolving and changing reality.
Yenika-Agbaw then goes on to discuss a moving work that speaks precisely to this problem in contemporary Africa, T. Obinkaram Echewa's The Ancestor Tree. This novel brilliantly portrays the tension between holding onto the old and embracing the new in Amapu, a West African village community. A serious dilemma occurs when Nna-nna, the old storyteller [End Page 254] loved by all, dies. All his village "children" want to plant an ancestor tree for him, but...