I had a peripatetic childhood; my father’s academic career took us all over the United States and Europe. However, when it came to Africa, I was no different than someone who had grown up in one spot. I remember being titillated by photographs of strangely adorned people in National Geographic, reading about Albert Schweitzer in my Weekly Reader, creating an ancient Egyptian farm out of sugar cubes, and visiting zoos all over the place full of fantastic African animals. If there was more at school or home, I don’t remember it.
In 1974 I applied to the Peace Corps requesting an assignment in Africa. As I waited to hear what my assignment would be, I developed further requirements: I wanted to learn a new language, live in a dry climate with plenty of game parks, and there should be no snakes, please.
Finally I received my invitation — to teach in Sierra Leone, a country I had never heard of. A former British colony on Africa’s west coast, Sierra Leone’s official language was English, the country was riddled with snakes, it was mostly tropical rain forest, and there were absolutely no zebras whatsoever. The invitation emphatically put my sentimental notions to rest: “Peace Corps service is not a junior year abroad nor a romantic adventure….The Peace Corps in Sierra Leone does not exist for the benefit of Volunteers, but rather for the benefit of Sierra Leoneans….So come to do a job, not to find yourself.” On August 9, 1974, I flew off to Freetown, Sierra Leone leaving behind my preconceived notions of Africa.
Two years later I came back to the United States, changed forever. And ever since I’ve looked for ways to help American children gain a deeper more complex sense of Africa, to move them beyond the exotic imagery, past the foreign Albert Schweitzer-like icons to the African people themselves, to real African art not sugar cube farms, and most difficult of all — beyond those admittedly magnificent beasts of safari lore.
One way is through books.
There are more and more good books for children about Africa than when I grew up. But many still do, in my opinion, present the continent as an exotic one, focus on the animals, or on it as a place of deprivation and war. While many of these are admirable and often excellent works for children, I tend to look out for different sorts of books, ones that I feel help my privileged 4th graders make a real connection to the people of Africa.
One that I feel does so beautifully is Penda Diakite’s I LOST MY TOOTH IN AFRICA. Penda was twelve when she wrote this story about her sister’s experiences during a visit to their father’s family in Bamako, Mali. Beautifully and authentically told by Penda with gorgeous illustrations by her father, Baba Wague Diakite, this is a gem of a book. I spent some time in Bamako during my time in Africa and the images and events that Penda and her sister experience feel totally authentic to me. They are small ones, simple elements of daily life, but beautiful ones too. This is a book that helps bridge the chasm between Africa and America for children in a delightful way. I recommend it highly. (For an interesting look at the creation of this book check out this article by its editor Dianne Hess.)