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Picture books from Cassava Republic

Short stories by Doreen Baingana, Uwem Akpan
Toni Kan

Coming of age stories
Uzodinma Iweala, Chris Abani,
Chimamanda Adichie



Book Reviews

New Picture Books from Cassava Republic

Cassava Republic has brought out a beautiful set of eight picture books for children, with imaginative stories by Fatima Akilu on themes relating to the Millennium Development Goals. In addition to the imaginative stories on themes of interest to children, the books are very well produced, with beautiful and authentic illustrations in full color. Here are summaries of four of them.

Kitwa plays the drums (Fatima Akilu; illustrated by Alexander Amulu) tells of a girl who resents having to do all the work while her brother lounges around and plays his guitar. Her protests seem to fall on the deaf ears of her mother and grandmother, until a holiday visit to her uncle’s family shows them another way. In that home all the children pitch in to do the housework and her female cousin is the one who plays the drums. She teaches Kitwa to play, the boys join in on guitar, and even their grandmother abandons gender stereotypes and realizes her childhood dream of playing the flute.


Preye and the sea of plastic Fatima Akilu; illustrated by Alexander Amulu) takes up the issue of environmental sustainability. Preye is dismayed by the rubbish in his community, especially the plastic bags that litter the way everywhere he goes. He feels he is drowning in plastic. When his mother urges him to stop complaining and do something about it, Preye and his friends take up the challenge. They mount a campaign and produce a film that not only convinces the community but also broadcasts their message to the whole country.


Timi’s dream comes true

(Fatima Akilu; illustrated by Mustapha Bulama) concerns the hope of expanding one’s horizons through education. Timi seems destined to follow his father as a fisherman, but his dream is to become a teacher. How can this happen when his community has no school? A government official comes with big promises, which some skeptics hesitate to believe. However, the man is true to his word and provides a disused airplane. The whole village cooperates in transforming the airplane into an innovative community school.


Aliyyah learns a new dance (Fatima Akilu; illustrated by Mustapha Bulama) follows a rope. With suggestions from her brother, Aliyyah puts together a winning dance incorporating various Nigerian traditions. In the process she not only wins the contest but makes new friends from around the world and gains participation in an international student exchange program.



Other titles in the series are:

Ngozi comes to town (on eradicating extreme hunger and poverty);
Yinka washes his hands (reducing child mortality);
The red transistor radio (improving maternal health); and
The yellow mosquito net (combating diseases).

Short stories by Doreen Baingana, Uwem Akpan, & Toni Kan

The Women's book club read three collections of short stories by African authors, one Ugandan and two Nigerian, in 2010. Here is a synopsis of the discussions as recorded by Chiazo Igboeli.

Tropical Fish: Tales from Entebbe, by Doreen Baingana (Cassava Republic)

Tropical Fish is a set of interlocked stories about three sisters in Entebbe, Uganda experiencing their adolescent and early adult years. The book seems to have been written for adolescents and young adults and to reflect their lives and concerns. Some aspects were reminiscent of adolescent life in Nigeria, for instance, boarding school life with the food (beans with weevils), the paucity of male teachers in girls’ schools, etc.

Life in Entebbe for the Ugandans appeared very much westernized. The three sisters had no experience of village life, having been born and bred in Entebbe and having never visited their village. A confusion and conflict of values between Western and traditional African values was evident in the books. This is not surprising since the white man dominated East and Central African countries in a manner that he did not dominate West Africa.

The effects of the HIV/AIDS pandemic were well reflected in the book. The oldest sister, Rose, contracted HIV/AIDS and died. From her letter to David it was evident that the pandemic was ravaging Uganda at that time. However, as a member observed, Uganda has done very well in containing HIV/AIDS. Patti, another sister, had a religious conversion in secondary school. She seems not to have had further education and appeared content to putter around and manage her vegetable garden.

The main focus was on Christine, who pursued further education and moved to the USA. Christine’s experience in Los Angeles was a typical African immigrant experience in the USA—the sterility of the environment and the loneliness. African immigrants try to cope by having regular get-togethers within their national, state, and town groups. Christine, unable to cope with life in the USA decided to go home. But she had forgotten how bad home could be. Don’t we all have the tendency to forget the negatives about home when we are away from it?

Christine was in for a shock when she got back to Uganda: she met dilapidation, poor working conditions, poor facilities, etc. Her mother expected her to marry but she appeared not to be keen, and not to be bothered about spinsterhood. This attitude seems to be a trend among educated females in Africa. Christine may have subliminally been influenced by her mother’s marital experience of being married to a drunk. Christine who had been captivated by her mother’s green stones found in later years that the stones had lost their luster. They had faded even as the love in her parents’ marriage seemed to have faded.

Say You're One of Them, by Uwem Akpan (Little, Brown, 2009)

This collection of five short stories, by Nigerian Jesuit priest, Uwem Akpan, illuminates lives of children facing very difficult circumstances in Nigeria and East African countries. The stories were discussed individually.

An Ex-Mas Feast
The opening story portrays a desperately poor family living on the street in Nairobi, Kenya. The author’s emphasis in the story appeared to be on absolute deprivation; there appeared to be no escape route from abject poverty for the family in the story. The 12-year-old Maisha saw prostitution as the only possible escape route and decided to leave home and become a professional prostitute. She hated her parents for being unable to send her to school because of their poverty. A depressing story! Maisha’s 8-year-old brother refused to be sponsored in school from the proceeds of prostitution and ran away from home to become a street child. The 10-year-old sister was already being coached by Maisha on how to relate to men and had already had a man.

Club members were aware of street children, but street families were a new phenomenon which was rather difficult to accept. How could a family live on the streets? Possibly the collapse of the extended family structure in modern African countries may be responsible for the phenomenon of street children and street families. We have street children in Nigeria; do we have street families?

Fattening for Gabon
In this story two young Nigerian children, whose parents are dying of AIDS, are handed over to the care of their uncle in another town. Some members found this story very painful; a man deceiving his 10-year-old nephew Kotchipa and 5-year-old niece Yewa, planning to sell them into slavery where they could possibly be used as child prostitutes. Could Fofo’s poverty justify such deception and wickedness?

Foto was not totally depraved; he still had a conscience and decided not to continue with the plan. He planned to run away with the children back to their village, having explained everything to Kotchipa. He was killed as they attempted the escape. Kotchipa was able to escape but Yewa, who was kept in the dark about the deception, was taken into slavery. Some members asked, “Is this story true? Do such things happen?”

What Language Is That?
The story is simple and quite realistic. There was faith-related trouble in an Ethiopian city, after which the parents told the storyteller, a 6-year-old Christian girl, and her best friend Selam,, a Muslim girl, to stop relating to each other. Neither girl was happy about this and they soon discovered a new language of communication without words—miming. Since they lived across the street from each other, they could communicate through mimes when their mothers were not watching.

Luxurious Hearses
The second longest story in the book was found to be most interesting and compelling. It concerned a Muslim boy in northern Nigeria, who, rejected by his own people, attempted to flee south to find his Christian father’s family. He finds himself hiding his identity on a bus of Christian refugees trying to escape religious violence in the North. The complete and easy changeability of the people in the bus was striking and it did not show the people to advantage. However, if we consider that these people had just been through some horrendous experiences and great tribulations and have not escaped from enemy territory, then we can begin to appreciate the volatility of their emotions. They were so distressed that they were no longer normal.
The 16-year-old Muslim boy, Jibril died fulfilled; he was true to himself. He had been prepared for the ordeal that awaited him and he faced death boldly. The instant justice was typical of what happens in Nigerian cities.

My Parents’ Bedroom
This was possibly the longest story in the book, powerfully compelling to some, and the most terrible of
the stories to others. Set in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, the story concerns a family caught in the middle, with a Hutu husband and Tutsi wife. Events are viewed through the eyes of their 9-year-old daughter Monique, who sees her loving family torn apart by inter-ethnic hatred and her father forced to kill his own wife. It was not the most depressing of the stories, however, because of Maman’s bravery; she willingly encouraged her husband to kill her to ensure that her husband, her daughter Monique and her little son were spared.

Monique and her little brother, who had been brought up with much love and in a lovely home suddenly became fugitives after witnessing the killing of their Maman. Monique suddenly became her brother’s caretaker and had to hide from Maman’s people who were on a mission of revenge. The vengeful Tutsis unwillingly killed their own people hiding in the ceiling of Papa and Maman’s house when they set the house on fire.

Nights of the Creaking Bed, by Toni Kan (Cassava Republic)

This collection of short stories takes on the harsh realities of Nigerian life, especially among the urban poor. General comments were made before the stories that comprise the book were discussed. Some members observed that the book was blatantly honest in the stories, which were about social behavior; the author was not judgmental. Some members reached rather strongly and wondered why there was so much sex and graphic detail in the first few stories. They were upset enough not to read further. They wondered if books cannot sell without sex in this age. They were of the opinion that these books should not be on the shelves in the Children’s Centre Library. The chair countered that this book and some others were bought specifically for the book club. Other members questioned the “fuss” about sex; the author was just telling it as it is in society today. And, moreover, children are not ignorant about sex-related issues. A member said that the book was pornographic but another member strongly disagreed. Following are discussions of four stories from the collection, beginning with the title one.

Nights of the Creaking Bed
A woman who was abandoned by her husband entered into a relationship with a married man in order to have support for herself and her sons. The relationship, which was not hidden from the sons or from the neighbors, ended in the death of the man on the woman’s bed, possibly during sexual intercourse. Following this, the woman and her sons were ridiculed and had to find another accommodation. This story shows how adult behavior could negatively impact children’s lives. The question some members asked was, “Where was the extended family? Why didn’t the extended family support the woman and her two sons?”

Broda Sonnie
The storyteller was a school child whose father had left his mother and run away with another woman. The story, recounted by a schoolchild living with his abandoned mother and other tenants in a Lagos yard, concerned a neighbor, Sonnie, a jolly bus conductor and the only son of his widowed mother. The storyteller helped him write love letters to his many girlfriends. Sonnie’s special girl was Risi, a Muslim neighbor from a relatively well-off family. After a pilgrimage to Mecca her brother Mufu began cutting himself off from his Christian neighbors, calling Sonnie and others “Christian infidels.” Mufu so strongly resented the budding relationship between Sonnie and Risi that he and some associates stormed Sonnie’s quarters and killed him while his mother, Risi, and neighbors watched.

This story is about religious issues which the Nigerian government appears unable to deal with. There was a long discussion of the cultural and religious conflicts that have become incessant in Nigeria. In these conflicts culture and religion are so tightly interwoven that it is not easy to know how to deal with them. The recent crises in Jos were cited; some Nigerians say that the conflict is religious while other argue that it is cultural. Whichever it is, the governments have not been able to handle these conflicts and punish the instigators and perpetrators.

Ahmed, a shepherd boy, had an older brother Yinusa, a truck dirver who told exaggerated stories about life in the big city. Ahmed was captivated and kept begging their widowed mother to allow him to go with Yinusa to Lagos. Mother refused because she feared that he would not return home alive if he went to the city.

Ahmed continued to beg and eventually their mother agreed. Ahmed was disappointed with some aspects of the big city, but he was totally captivated by the tall buildings, the number of cars on the streets, the pedestrian bridges. As they drove into Lagos, the driver’s mate used a piece of wood to move dangling electric cables out of the way. Ahmed, in ignorance, tried to move a cable with his bare hands and was electrocuted. He saw Lagos and died; thus, his mother’s fears came true.

My Perfect Life
Sylvia, a 20-year-old final year College of Education student from Abraka, met Seun, a Yoruba man who worked and lived in Warri. Within three weeks of their meeting, Sylvia and Seun were madly in love and Seun proposed to Sylvia. However, Sylvia’s father refused to allow his first daughter to marry a Yoruba man because of what his people did to his uncle after the war. Although Seun pleaded with Sylvia to defy her father and elope, she was afraid and fell ill enough to be hospitalized. Upon discharge she found that Seun was gone.

Years later at 41, Sylvia was married to a kind, loving and gentle man, had two children, a good job and home. But when she met Seun at a supermarket, the truncated love relationship was instantly renewed. Happiness and excitement were most important to Sylvia; she was not content to be ordinary like other women and remain in a marriage that was devoid of sexual excitement and love. She was tempted by Seun’s proposal that she leave her husband and children and travel with him to America. He pleaded that they should not miss this opportunity as they had missed the first one. Though the ending is ambiguous, Sylvia’s own happiness seemed more important to her than that of her husband and children and she appeared to some members to have made up her mind to leave her family. Are women in Nigeria behaving this way these days?

Three coming-of-age stories by young Nigerian authors

Beasts of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala (HarperCollins, 2005)
This painful account of coming of age under the most life-threatening circumstances is set in an unnamed West African country, which sounds like Liberia or Sierra Leone but could well have been Nigeria. The ‘beasts’ are child soldiers, forced into a bloody and brutal conflict with no discernable cause. The story is told through the eyes of Agu, a young village boy approaching adolescence, who sees his life change forever as war comes to his village and separates him from the world he has known and everyone he loves. He is drafted into a band of rebel soldiers, who brutalize him and drive him to maim and kill. Agu’s admires the Commandant of the band as a strong and fearless soldier. Yet the Commandant is a brutal man who directs him to commit atrocities and sexually abuses the boy.

Agu tries to reconcile his murderous frenzies with his image of himself as a good boy by recounting his life before the war, memories of his family and village which sustain him and prevent a total loss of self. He also finds some comfort in his friendship with the boy who discovered him in the bush and fleeting moments of companionship with the other soldiers. As the war goes on and conditions worsen, Agu joins the surviving soldiers in abandoning the fight and finds his way to freedom and the hope of recovery in a rehabilitation camp. The novel also raised troubling questions about the limits of individual freedom in the face of overpowering evil.

Graceland by Chris Abani (Picador, 2004)

This novel portrays a young man trying to find his way in difficult circumstances, without traditional role models or support. The novel weaves its way back and forth between urban Lagos and rural Afikpo, from 1983 back to 1972. Elvis Oke is a school dropout living in the Lagos slum of Maroko with his drunk and unemployed father. Elvis is preoccupied with getting a job, a search which involves him in a spiral of increasingly illegal and dangerous jobs that almost cost him his life. He tries to dissociate himself from his surroundings, through reading, dancing and music. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn about his more favored childhood in the small Igbo town of Afikpo in Eastern Nigeria, where Elvis lived in relative plenty with his father, a respected school official and community leader, his gentle and educated mother, and his eccentric but devoted grandmother. There is a dark side to family life however, including sexual abuse, violence and murder. When his mother gets sick and dies and his father is ruined by drink and an unsuccessful political campaign, the two are forced to relocate to Lagos.

In both Afikpo and Lagos Elvis has little to guide him through to manhood. Surprisingly, he survives bitter experiences with his kindness and compassion intact. While he does not receive the expected encouragement and guidance from his father and other male elders, he draws on eclectic experiences and varied relationships and cultural influences to find his way through the maze of adolescence. At the end Elvis is persuaded to accept his friend’s offer of a visa to America, where he may be able to join his aunt and pursue his dream of a dancing career. Graceland offers a realistic portrayal of the lives of many Nigerians who are down-and-out. While the depiction of child abuse, political oppression, and the consequences of poverty in Nigerian society is grim, the novel also brings out the qualities that allowed Elvis to survive such unpromising circumstances.

Purple Hibiscus, by Chimamanda Adichie (Farafina, 2003)

Chimamanda Adichie’s first novel recounts the story of Kambili, a fifteen-year-old girl growing up in a wealthy but troubled family in the Eastern Nigerian city of Enugu. The girl adores her father, a wealthy, politically committed and fanatically religious businessman. However, their home is an unhappy one because of the impossible expectations he sets for her and her seventeen-year-old brother, Jaja, his violence toward her longsuffering mother, and his rejection of his traditionalist father.

Kambili and her brother find relief when they are able to visit their Aunty Ifeoma, a lecturer at the University of Nigeria, on an extended holiday and encounter a very different lifestyle: open, exuberant, unpretentious, and direct. She develops positive relationships with her strong and independent aunt, her outspoken and liberated cousin Amaka, and her wise and loving grandfather. Above all, Kambili blossoms as she nurtures her secret love for a young charismatic priest. The power of love she has known at Nsukka enables her to weather the storms that break over the family upon their return to Enugu.

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