Wednesday, November 24, 2010


When you read this, I will be in Africa, giving author talks at international schools in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Senegal. Before I leave for any new destination, I search out books to read, and this time I found three terrific ones.

The Betrayal of Africa by Gerald Caplan (Groundswood Books, 2008) is not your usual feel-good travel guide. In fact, its story is appalling – the wretched legacy of colonialism of sub-Saharan Africa has created catastrophe in the political, economic, ecological, and health spheres of modern-day Africa. The blame for corruption and violence that we read about is equally placed on African leaders and policies of Western governments, the IMF, and the World Bank. This 144-page book is filled with facts, figures, and details organized under useful sub-headings. It is a thorough YA introduction to the study of Africa. (NB the only glimmer of hope the author offers, aside from wholesale political policy changes in world foreign policy is grass-roots African efforts, like grandmothers who have stepped in to raise their AIDS-orphaned grandchildren, and opposition groups who risk their lives demanding change.)

The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Nealer (William Morrow, 2009) offers a personal story that reflects the previous book. With his native Malawi suffering a horrific drought/famine (and the government not releasing surplus food,) Kamkwamba’s family can’t pay his school fees and so he drops out. He picks up an old science book in the library, scavenges an abandoned factory site for scrap metal, and constructs a wind turbine that gives his family electricity. We read a boy’s account of rural village agricultural life in the best and worst of times. This is a perfect story for privileged children – indeed adults, too - to read. Happy ending (so far:) William flew to the US to speak at a TED conference, and is now studying at a gifted school in South Africa.

A Gift from Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood

by Baba Wagué Diakité (Groundwood/House of Anansi, 2010) Following an old tradition in Mali, at age four Baba Wagué was sent from his home in the city to live with his paternal grandparents in a rural village. He stayed for ten years, during which time his father died and he rarely saw his mother. Diakité, an author-illustrator of African folk tales, traces his storytelling career to his grandmother and life with his large extended family. We learn a bit of French colonial history – his grandfather was arrested but later became the village liaison to the French. We read some of grandmother’s folktales. We see the strict respect children show to their elders. All is not rosy. It took Diakité some time to adapt to life without his mother. A young cousin died in his arms during the drought/famine of the 1970s. Later he begged to go to school, but his grandmother refused. “You will go to school when you are educated,” she replied. Finally, he returned to his mother in the city, but almost doesn’t go to school for, while she has just enough money to pay his school fees, she doesn’t have enough to bribe the principal to admit him. He finally enters school, and honors his grandmother by becoming a storyteller. Today, Diakité lives in Portland, Oregon with his American family. He also runs an arts and cultural center in Bamako, Mali.

These three books give a glimpse of African history, politics, biography, and folklore and create a cultural context with a human face.

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