Touring last year's Zimbabwe International Book Fair, an annual event in Harare, I was dismayed by the prominence of children's titles on African themes that were written by whites, and the dearth of such titles by African writers.
Poking around at the back of the exhibition spaces, I did find several works by Africans. But most are rather grim affairs, as in the Grimm fairy tales outlawed in the nurseries of modern families who don't want those violent, sexist, gory old tales scaring their children at bedtime.
In contrast, the stories by English and German writers looked safely sanitized, designed to appeal to parents in the first world.
Politically incorrect as some of these well-written books by African authors may be, they do offer North American parents the chance to discuss with their children the often tough circumstances of African childhood, as well as African spiritualism, which weaves through most of the stories. For the youngest children, a few of the books are sweet tales of wildlife. Getting these titles will take some extra legwork, but they provide a rich first-hand experience of African culture.
The Lost Headband, by Mpho Moloko, is an irresistibly pretty book for the under-fives. The maiden Zodwa
despairs when her younger brother loses the beautiful beaded headband she created for her Zulu wedding day. This is a lovely look at traditional African village life.
Stories from a Shona Childhood uses drought and competition between animals as the starting points for these Zimbabwean tales by the award-winning Charles Mungoshi, deservedly well-known for his adult fiction. Comrade Elephant and the rest of the animals have to work together to survive in the drought-prone areas of Zimbabwe where Mungoshi's Shona people live. Particularly moving is a story of slavery and loneliness and the magic that sets the world right. More disturbing is the tale of a father who denies food to his starving family, hoarding it for himself.
How Thopo Became a Great N'anga, by Stephen Alumenda, is suitable for older kids in that it discusses society's attitudes toward those who are different and indifferent to authority. Thopo is a 10-year-old orphan who doesn't go to school, drinks occasionally, attends every birth and funeral in the village, and eats all sorts of surprising things. Parents can't decide whether he's harmless or a bad influence on their children; they certainly don't appreciate all that Thopo really is.
One day, Thopo defies the local N'anga, or spiritual leader, by catching a sacred python and challenging the N'anga in the most shocking manner. The villagers are impressed. Then Thopo vanishes from the village. His return is a miracle that Alumenda describes beautifully.
The author also penned Marita Goes to School, about a young village girl's struggle to learn her letters, despite her father's firm belief that schooling is wasted on girls, an all-too-familiar African tale.
African society is in extremes, thanks to war, urbanization, unemployment, disease, and family breakdown. Children are the canaries singing desperately in the mine, and their tragic short stories, poems and artwork are recorded in Voices. Many of the 21 teenage contributors write of homelessness on the streets of Nairobi and in refugee camps. They confront abandonment, drug abuse, rape, AIDS, child labor, corrupt officials, hunger, begging, and forced early marriage. This encouragingly well-written book is right for teenagers and parents ready to address Africa's troubles, none of which are unique to the continent.
Despite a few tired stories about beautiful, dutiful, beleaguered princesses that leave one hoping for safari, From Rags to Riches and Other Stories, by Riyaz Bachani, contains some delights of theme and style, particularly the animal legends. American children will be surprised by the human characteristics ascribed to animals in Kenya: The fox is greedy and lazy rather than cunning, while the parrot has the magpie's eye for glittering objects.
*Kate Dunn is a freelance writer in Cape Town, South Africa. Take a look at the e-Monitor's black history project at: www.csmonitor.com/bhp.html