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1. Twenty years after the Rwandan Genocide

By Scott Straus

We are now entering the month of April 2014—a time for reflection, empathy, and understanding for anyone in or involved with Rwanda. Twenty years ago, Rwandan political and military leaders initiated a series of actions that quickly turned into one of the 20th century’s greatest mass violations of human rights.

As we commemorate the genocide, our empathy needs to extend first to survivors and victims. Many families were destroyed in the genocide. Many survivors suffered enormous hardships to survive. Whatever our stand on the current state of affairs in Rwanda, we have to be enormously recognizant of the pain many endured.

In this brief post, I address three issues that speak to Rwanda today. I do so with trepidation, as discussions about contemporary Rwanda are often polarized and emotionally charged. Even though I am critical, I shall try to raise concerns with respect and recognition that there are few easy solutions.

My overall message is one of concern. At one level, Rwanda is doing remarkably and surprisingly well—in terms of security, the economy, and non-political aspects of governance. However, deep resentments and ethnic attachments persist, hardships and significant inequality remain. While it is difficult to know what people really feel, my general conclusion is that the social fabric remains tense beneath a veneer of good will. A crucial issue is that the political system is authoritarian and designed for control rather than dialogue. It is also a political system that many Rwandans believe is structured to favor particular groups over others. Fostering trust in such a political context is highly unlikely.

I also conclude that a “genocide lens” has limits for the objective of social repair. The genocide lens has been invaluable for achieving international recognition of what happened in 1994. But that lens leads to certain biases about Rwanda’s history and society that limit long-term social repair in Rwanda.

Rwandan Genocide Memorial. 7 April 2011. El Fasher: The Rwandan community in UNAMID organized the 17th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi hold in Super Camp - RWANBATT 25 Military Camp (El Fasher). Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID.

Rwandan Genocide Memorial. 7 April 2011. El Fasher: The Rwandan community in UNAMID organized the 17th Commemoration of the 1994 Genocide against Tutsi hold in Super Camp – RWANBATT 25 Military Camp (El Fasher). Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran / UNAMID. CC-BY-NC-ND-2.0 via UNAMID Flickr.

During the past 20 years, a sea change in international recognition has occurred. Fifteen years ago, very few people knew globally that genocide took place in Rwanda. Today, the “Rwandan Genocide” is widely recognized as a world historical event. That global recognition is an achievement. We also know a great deal more about the causes and dynamics of the genocide itself.

However, several important controversies and unanswered questions remain. One is who killed President Habyarimana on 6 April 1994. Another is how to conceptualize when the plan for genocide began. Some date the plan for genocide to the late 1950s; others to the 1990s; still others to April 1994. A third question is how one should conceptualize RPF responsibility. Some depic the former rebels as saviors who stopped the genocide. Others argue that their actions were integral to the dynamics that led to genocide. And there are other issues as well, including how many were killed. Each of these issues remains intensely debated and hopefully will be the subject of open-minded inquiry in the years to come.

Contemporary Rwanda is at one level inspiring. The government is visionary, ambitious, and accomplished. The plan is to transform the society, economy, and culture—and to wean the state from foreign aid. The government has successfully introduced major reforms. The tax system is much improved. Public corruption is virtually absent. Remarkable results in public health and the economy have been achieved. Public security is also dramatically improved.

But there is a dark side. Most importantly, the government is repressive. The government seeks to exercise control over public space, especially around sensitive topics—in politics, in the media, in the NGO sector, among ordinary citizens, and even among donors. The net impact is the experience of intimidation and, as a friend aptly put it, many silences.

That brings me to the delicate question of reconciliation. Reconciliation is an imprecise concept for what I mean. What matters is the quality of the social fabric in Rwanda—the trust between people—and the quality of state-society relations.

Jean Baptiste and Freda reconciliation. Photo by Trocaire. CC BY 2.0 via Trocaire Flickr.

Jean Baptiste and Freda reconciliation. Photo by Trocaire. CC BY 2.0 via Trocaire Flickr.

A central pillar in Rwanda’s social reconstruction process has been justice. Much is written on gacaca, the government’s extraordinary program to transform a traditional dispute settlement process into a country-wide, decade-long process to account for genocide crimes. Gacaca brought some survivors satisfaction at finally seeing the guilty punished. Gacaca spawned some important conversations, led to important revelations, and prompted some sincere apologies.

But there were also a lot of problems. There were lies on all sides. There were manipulations of the system. Some apologies were pro-forma. And there were weak protections for witnesses and defendants alike. In many cases, justice was not done. But to my mind many the bigger issue is gacaca reinforced the idea that post-genocide Rwanda is an environment of winners and losers.

The entire justice process excluded non-genocide crimes, in particular atrocities that the RPF committed as it took power, in the northwest the late 1990s, and in Congo, where a lot of violence occurred. This meant that whole categories of suffering in the long arc of the 1990s and 2000s were neither recognized nor accounted for. Justice was one-sided. Many Rwandans experience it therefore as political justice that serve the RPF goal of retaining power.

The second issue is the scale. A million citizens, primarily Hutu, were accused. The net effect is that the legal process served to politically demobilize many Hutus, as Anu Chakravarty has written. Having watched the process of rebuilding social cohesion and state-society relations after atrocity in several places, I come to the conclusion that inclusion is vitally important.

If states privilege justice as a mechanism for social healing, judicial processes should recognize the multi-sided nature of atrocity. All groups that suffered from atrocity should be able to give voice to their experiences and, if punitive measures are on the table, seek accountability. Otherwise, in the long run, justice looks like a charade, one that ultimately may undermine the memories it is designed to preserve.

Here is where the “genocide lens” did not serve Rwanda well. A genocide lens narrates history as a story between perpetrators and victims. Yet the Rwandan reality is much more complicated.

Scott Straus is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at UW-Madison. Scott specializes in the study of genocide, political violence, human rights, and African politics. His published work includes several books on Rwanda and articles in African Affairs. A longer version of this article was presented at the “Rwanda Today: Twenty Years after the Genocide” event at Humanity House in The Hague on 3 April 2014. The author wishes to thank the organizers of that event.

To mark the 20th anniversary of the genocide, African Affairs is making some of their best articles on Rwanda freely available. Don’t miss this opportunity to read about the legacy of genocide and Rwandan politics under the RPF.

African Affairs is published on behalf of the Royal African Society and is the top ranked journal in African Studies. It is an inter-disciplinary journal, with a focus on the politics and international relations of sub-Saharan Africa. It also includes sociology, anthropology, economics, and to the extent that articles inform debates on contemporary Africa, history, literature, art, music and more.

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2. A brief history of ethnic violence in Rwanda and Africa’s Great Lakes region

By J. J. Carney

A few years ago an American Catholic priest asked me about my dissertation research. When I told him I was studying the intersection of Catholicism, ethnicity, and violence in Rwandan history, he responded, “Those people have been killing each other for ages.”

Such is the common if misguided popular stereotype. But even the better informed are often unaware of the longer historical trajectories of violence in Rwanda and the broader Great Lakes region. Although the 1994 genocide in Rwanda has garnered the most scholarly and popular attention–and rightfully so–it did not emerge out of a vacuum. As the world commemorates the 20th anniversary of the genocide, it is important to locate this epochal humanitarian tragedy within a broader historical and regional perspective.

Northwestern Rwanda by CIAT. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

Northwestern Rwanda by CIAT. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

First, explicitly “ethnic” violence has a relatively recent history in Rwanda. Although precolonial Rwanda was by no means a utopian paradise, the worst political violence occurred in the midst of intra-elite dynastic struggles, such as the one that followed the death of Rwanda’s famous Mwami Rwabugiri in 1895. Even after the hardening of Hutu and Tutsi identities under the influence of German and Belgian colonial rule, there was no explicit Hutu-Tutsi violence throughout the first half of the 20th century.

This all changed in the late 1950s. As prospects for decolonization advanced, Hutu elites began to mobilize the Rwandan masses on the grounds of “Hutu” identity; Tutsi elites in turn encouraged a nationalist, pan-ethnic paradigm. The latter vision may have carried the day save for the sudden July 1959 death of Rwanda’s long-serving king, Mwami Mutara Rudahigwa. Mutara’s death opened up a political vacuum, emboldening extremists on all sides. After an escalating series of incidents in October 1959, a much larger wave of ethnic violence broke out in November 1959. Hutu mobs burned Tutsi homes across northern Rwanda, killing hundreds and forcing thousands from their homes. Scores of Hutu political leaders were killed in retaliatory attacks. Even here, however, motivations could be more complicated than an ethnic zero-sum game. For example, many Hutu militia leaders later claimed that they were defending Rwanda’s Tutsi king, Mwami Kigeli V, from a cabal of Tutsi chiefs. In other cases Hutu and Tutsi self-defense forces collaborated to defend their communities.

Supported by key figures in the Catholic hierarchy and the Belgian colonial administration, Hutu political leaders like Gregoire Kayibanda soon gained the upper hand in the political struggle that followed the November 1959 violence. In turn, political violence took on increasingly ethnic overtones during election cycles in 1960 and 1961; hundreds of mostly Tutsi civilians were killed in a series of local massacres between March 1960 and September 1961. Marginalized inside Rwanda, Tutsi exile leaders launched raids into Rwanda in early 1962, sparking further retaliatory violence against Tutsi civilians in the northern town of Byumba. For their part, European missionaries and colonial officials deplored the violence even as they blamed much of it on Tutsi exile militias, attributing the Hutu reactions to uncontrollable “popular anger.”

If these earlier episodes could be classified as “ethnic massacres,” a larger genocidal event unfolded in December 1963 and January 1964. Shortly before Christmas, a Tutsi exile militia invaded Rwanda from neighboring Burundi. The incursion was quickly repulsed by a combined force of Belgian and Rwandan army units. In the immediate aftermath, the Rwandan government launched a vicious repression of Tutsi opposition political leaders. In the weeks that followed, local government “self-defense” units executed upwards of 10,000 Tutsi civilians in the southern Rwandan province of Gikongoro. Vatican Radio among other media sources deplored “the worst genocide since World War II.” Local religious leaders like Archbishop André Perraudin stood by the government, however, calling the invoking of “genocide” language “deeply insulting for a Catholic head of state.”

Rwanda’s “ethnic syndrome” spread to neighboring Burundi during the 1960s. After a failed Hutu coup d’état in April-May 1972, Burundi’s Tutsi-dominated military launched a fierce repression known locally as the “ikiza” (“curse”). Over 200,000 mostly educated Hutu were killed that summer. In Rwanda, anti-Tutsi violence broke out in February 1973. Although the number of deaths was much lower than in 1963-64, hundreds of Tutsi elites were driven into exile as pogroms broke out at Rwanda’s national university, several Catholic seminaries, and a multitude of secondary schools and parishes.

Rwanda and Burundi were both dominated by one-party military dictatorships during the 1970s and 1980s. For some years each regime paid lip service to a pan-ethnic ideal. However, as economic and political conditions worsened in the late 1980s, ethnic violence flared again in 1988 in the northern Burundian provinces of Ntega and Marangara. In October 1990, the Tutsi-dominated Rwanda Patriotic Front invaded northern Rwanda, sparking a three-year civil war that profoundly destabilized Rwandan society. Following the pattern of the early 1960s, Hutu militias responded by targeting Tutsi civilians in six separate local massacres between October 1990 and February 1994. In turn, the October 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi’s first Hutu Prime Minister, sparked a massive outbreak of ethnic violence and civil war in Burundi that would ultimately take the lives of over half a million.

In turn, one should not forget the post-1994 violence that continued to plague the region. Not only did Rwanda suffer more massacres (some directed at Hutu) between 1995 and 1998, but Burundi’s civil war continued until 2006. Perhaps worst of all, Eastern Congo after 1996 became the epicenter of what many scholars have dubbed “Africa’s World War.” The precipitous cause of the conflict was Rwanda’s invasion of Congo in October 1996, ostensibly to clear Hutu refugee camps that were serving as staging grounds for cross-border raids into Rwanda. Upwards of four million Congolese died from war-related causes over the next six years. Over a decade later, Rwandan-backed militias continue to dominate Congo’s Kivu provinces. The “afterlife” of the Rwanda genocide thus continues even in 2014.

The 1994 genocide took the lives of an estimated 800,000 Rwandans, the vast majority of them Tutsi. This genocide–and the world’s utter abandonment of the Rwandan people–should never be forgotten. But nor should we overlook the political and ethnic violence that preceded and followed the genocide, whether in Rwanda, Burundi, or the Democratic Republic of the Congo. One can only hope that the next 20 years will be kinder to a region that has suffered so much over the past generation.

J. J. Carney is Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska. His research and teaching interests engage the theological and historical dimensions of the Catholic experience in modern Africa. He has published articles in African Ecclesial Review, Modern Theology, Journal of Religion in Africa, and Studies in World Christianity. He is author of Rwanda Before the Genocide: Catholic Politics and Ethnic Discourse in the Late Colonial Era.

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3. #520 – Elephants at the Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe by Steve Wolfson & Heleen Brulot

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Elephants At The Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe

by Steve Wolfson & Heleen Brulot

Argami Productions     11/25/2013


Age 4 to 8   32 pages


“Nicki is not so happy about having to move to Zimbabwe, Africa. She is not sure what to expect and is truly surprised when one of the first things she sees is an elephant at the airport.”


“Nikki thought she was waking up, but maybe it was a dream. Why else were her parents sleeping in her bedroom and why she was sleeping sitting up in a chair.”

The Story

Nikki’s mother gets a job that takes the family to Zimbabwe, Africa. Like most young kids, Nikki does not want to leave her home and her friends. She wonders how she will hang her posters on a mud wall. She is also fearful of all the wild animals that she believes will be everywhere. Nikki might be right. At the airport an elephant—a green elephant with red and yellow spots—takes her suitcase off the belt and walks away with it. Dad insists there are no elephants in the city.

In her new home, Nikki sees a menagerie of animals come through the bushes defining her backyard. Rhinos, lions, zebras, baboons, and an ostrich run and play in front of Nikki’s bedroom window. Dad sternly insists there are no wild animals in the city. Nikki spends all her time playing with the elephant from the airport, much to her parent’s dismay. They never see any of the animals that hide in the bushes until Nikki is alone.



The first reading of Elephants at the Airport was confusing. Why could only Nikki see the animals that were real enough to play with her? The title on the cover states, Elephants at the Airport and nothing more, not even the author and illustrator’s name (that is perfectly okay). A closer look at the credit and title pages shows a subtitle: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe. Now I get it. The story is a fable. Nikki has no desire to move to Africa and is terrified of the unknown. To make things worse, a green elephant—with red and yellow dots—grabs her suitcase. Dad refuses to believe his child.

Zimbabwe is not a place to fear, but a magical place for kids where the animals entertain Nikki in front of her bedroom window. The story lacks development. Mainly Nikki and her father are in a stalemate over wild animals in the city in which they live. Dad even takes Nikki to a game park—actually a mechanism to end the story. Nikki declares the elephants were great, but her favorite is still the airport elephant, which causes her dad to yell,

“There are NO elephants at the airport!”

Nikki replies that he is right; the elephant is now at their home. She then runs out to play with Airport. Nikki happily skips out of the house and her parents look out to see their daughter with something green and wonder . . . could it be? An acceptable ending I suppose. Kids will laugh and so might their parents.


To me, the ending just tells me the inevitable. An easy ending that does not develop the protagonist. Nikki should change by story’s end, but she changes on the first morning. It seems the character that might change is dad, a secondary character. Does he now believe wild animals are in the city? Does he now believe a green elephant with red and yellow spots plays with his daughter? Nikki folded her fears and her lack of enthusiasm for living in a new country too soon in the story.

Young children will like the imaginary playmate aspect of the story. They will like Airport, maybe even more so because of his coloring. They will most likely not care that the story is poorly constructed and in need of a good edit. Though they might want to know where the other elephants are at the airport.

I love the cover and really like the elephant. The artist draws a nice, realistic elephant. The illustrations are good. A few have what looks like paint smeared across the paper, making the image difficult to see. I think this is supposed to indicate speed—of the animals as they play. A few other images are mostly shades of brown with a bit of color, making it difficult to see what the image represents. That very well could be a printing problem, but in the end, whatever the problem, these spreads are not good. It really is a shame because the illustrations are extremely good.

[After watching the trailer, it is clear that the problem is with printing. The illustrations, every one of them, are gorgeous and detailed clearly in the trailer, but muddled on the page.]

Elephants at the Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe takes a young girl out of her familiar surroundings and places her into a strange land of wild animals. Nikki quickly recovers from her fears and plays with the elephant from the airport. Dad is not happy, thinking his girl is isolating herself. She has a great time playing with what might or might not be an imaginary friendly elephant. I like the premise of the story. Elephants at the Airport has wonderful story potential but it needs work before I would purchase this adorable green elephant.



Learn more about Elephants at the Airport: Once Upon a Time in Zimbabwe HERE.

Get a copy of Elephants at the Airport at AmazonB&Nbook’s websiteask for it at your neighborhood bookstore.


Meet the author, Steve Wolfson at his website: http://www.wolfsonsworld.com/ 

Meet the illustrator, Heleen Brulot at her website:  http://www.brulot.net/

Check out other books by Argami Productions at its website:  http://www.argamiproductions.com/


ELEPHANTS AT THE AIRPORT: ONCE UPON A TIME IN ZIMBABWE, Text copyright © 2013 by Steve Wolfson. Illustrations copyright © 2013 by Heleen Brulot. Reproduced by permission of Argami Productions, Weston, FL.



elephant at airport

Filed under: Children's Books, Library Donated Books, Picture Book Tagged: Africa, Argami Productions, children's book reviews, creativity, elephants, family, Heleen Brulot, imagination, relationships, Steve Wolfson, wild animals, Zimbabwe

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4. Celebrating Women’s History Month


This March we celebrate Women’s History Month, commemorating the lives, legacies, and contributions of women around the world. We’ve compiled a brief reading list that demonstrates the diversity of women’s lives and achievements.

Women in Asia

Map of Asia

The Courtesan’s Arts: Cross-Cultural Perspectives, Edited by Martha Feldman and Bonnie Gordon

Delve into courtesan cultures, including artistic practices and cultural production, often overlooked or diminished in relevancy.

The Power of Gender and the Gender of Power: Explorations in Early Indian History by Kumkum Roy

Discover the distinct strategies through which men and women constituted their identities in India for all their implications, tensions, and inconsistencies.

Cornelia Sorabji: India’s Pioneer Woman Lawyer: A Biography by Suparna Gooptu

Learn about Sorabji’s decisive role in opening up the legal profession to women long before they were allowed to plead before the courts of law, including her writings and personal correspondence.

Women in the Middle East

Map of Middle East

Cleopatra: A Biography by Duane W. Roller

Uncover not the figure in popular culture, arts, and literature of the last five hundred years — but the real last Greek queen of Egypt.

Conceiving Citizens: Women and the Politics of Motherhood in Iran by Firoozeh Kashani-Sabet

Place women in their proper role as mothers of a nation — central to the history of Iran during successive regimes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Imperial Harem: Women and Sovereignty in the Ottoman Empire by Leslie P. Peirce

Examine the sources of royal women’s power and assess the reactions of contemporaries, which ranged from loyal devotion to armed opposition.

Women in British History

UK Map

Singled Out: How Two Million British Women Survived Without Men After the First World War by Virginia Nicholson

Try to keep up with a generation of women fated to remain unmarried in the aftermath of the Great War.

The Wealth of Wives: Women, Law, and Economy in Late Medieval London by Barbara A. Hanawalt

Consider an overlooked contribution to London’s economy—the wealth that women accumulated through inheritance, dowry, and dower.

Queen Anne: Patroness of Arts by James A. Winn

Study the life and reign of Queen Anne through literature, art, and music from Dryden, Pope, Purcell, Handel, Lely, Kneller, Wren, Vanbrugh, Addison, Swift, and many other artists.

Women in European History


Murder of a Medici Princess by Caroline P. Murphy

Illuminate the brilliant life and tragic death of Isabella de Medici, one of the brightest stars in the dazzling world of Renaissance Italy, the daughter of Duke Cosimo I, ruler of Florence and Tuscany.

Writing the Revolution: A French Women’s History in Letters by Lindsay A. Parker

Investigate nearly 1,000 familiar letters, which convey the intellectual, emotional, and familial life of a revolutionary in all of its complexity.

The Burgher and the Whore: Prostitution in Early Modern Amsterdam by Lotte van de Pol

Delve into the cultural, social, and economic conditions of the lives of poor women in a seafaring society from the perspectives of prostitutes, their bawds, their clients, and the police.

Women in American History

U.S. Map

Southern Lady, Yankee Spy: The True Story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a Union Agent in the Heart of the Confederacy by Elizabeth R. Varon

Probe the life and work of one of the most remarkable women of the Civil War era–the leader of the North’s key spy ring in the South.

Working Women, Literary Ladies: The Industrial Revolution and Female Aspiration by Sylvia J. Cook

Trace the hopes and tensions generated by expectations of gender and class from the first New England operatives in the early 19th century to immigrant sweatshop workers in the early 20th.

Seneca Falls and the Origins of the Women’s Rights Movement by Sally McMillen

Join the meeting that launched the women’s rights movement and changed American history.

I Died for Beauty: Dorothy Wrinch and the Cultures of Science by Marjorie Senechal

Enter the provocative, scintillating mind of the talented and flawed scientist.

African American Women Chemists by Jeannette Brown

Connect to the lives of African America women chemists, from the earliest pioneers through late 1960′s when the Civil Rights Acts were passed, to today.

Women in Latin American History

Map of Latin America

Power and Women’s Representation in Latin America by Leslie A. Schwindt-Bayer

Look at the recent trends in women’s representation in Latin America, and the complex and often incomplete nature of women’s political representation.

Refusing the Favor: The Spanish-Mexican Women of Santa Fe, 1820-1880 by Deena J. Gonzalez

Uncover the key role “invisible” Spanish-Mexican women played in the US takeover of Mexico’s northern territory and gain a greater understanding of conquest and colonization.

Weaving the Past: A History of Latin America’s Indigenous Women from the Prehispanic Period to the Present by Susan Kellogg

Reach back through women’s long history of labor, political activism, and contributions to — or even support of — family and community well-being.

Women’s history encompasses the history of humankind, including men, but approaches it from a woman‐centered perspective. It highlights women’s activities and ideas and asserts that their problems, issues, and accomplishments are just as central to the telling of the human story as are those of their brothers, husbands, and sons. It places the sociopolitical relations between the sexes, or gender, at the center of historical inquiry and questions female subordination.

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Image Credits: (1) Physical World Map via CIA World Factbook (public domain). (2) Map of Asia by Bytebear. CC-BY-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) Map of Middle East by NuclearVacuum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (4) Map of Britain by Anonymous101. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (5) Map of Europe via CIA World Factbook (public domain). (6) Blank US Map by Theshibboleth. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (7) Map of Latin America and the Caribbean by Yug. CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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5. Africa is My Home: A 2014 Children’s Africana Book Award Winner

Yesterday I was over the moon after learning that Africa is My Home had been honored with a 2014 Children’s Africana Book Award (also know as CABA). I have long been familiar with these awards and have often discovered new books through them. So to be honored with one myself is amazing.

Here’s more about them:

In 1991, Africa Access in collaboration with the Outreach Council* of the African Studies Association created the Children’s Africana Book Awards  with three major objectives (1) to encourage the publication of children’s and young adult books that contribute to a better understanding of African societies and issues, (2) to recognize literary excellence, and (3) to acknowledge the research achievements of outstanding authors and illustrators. The first CABA was presented in 1992. Today over seventy-four titles have been recognized and more than 100 authors and illustrators are members of our Winners Circle. Each winning title has been vetted by our awards jury which is composed of African Studies and Children’s Literature scholars.

There will be an award ceremony on Saturday, November 8, 2014 the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC. From this cool slideshow of last year’s celebrations, I’m expecting that it and the other related activities are going to be wonderful.

My great thanks to the committee for honoring Africa is My Home this way.


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6. Africa is My Home: In Sierra Leone

Two friends who also served in Sierra Leone in the Peace Corps recently returned for a visit bringing along several copies of Africa is My Home as gifts. But what a gift they gave me by sending this photo of Peggy reading it to the people of Kenema Blango. I get weepy every time I look at it.


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7. The Plantation Church: a Q&A with Noel Erskine

In honor of Black History Month, we sat down with Noel Erskine to learn more about the Plantation Church—the religions that formed on plantations during slavery—and its roots in the Caribbean.

How was the Plantation Church formed?

The Plantation Church was formed through the traffic across the Black Atlantic of Africa’s children, packed like sardines, and treated as human cargo, to work on plantations in the Americas. The plantation was at first a site of human bondage, and provided the context for chattel slavery, where the entire family was brutalized as they realized that there was a connection between higher sugar prices and cruel treatment of slaves. In plantation society the political power of the African chief was transferred to the white master, except in the context of the plantation, there were no safeguards for women and children. The entire family was dehumanized. Plantation etiquette required submission to the wishes of the master and failure to comply would often elicit a violent response. The will of the master applied to every aspect of plantation life. The master had the right to whip, sell, or trade members of the family whenever or for whatever reason. Africans found it difficult at first to mount a credible form of resistance against the violence perpetrated against them on plantations.

Picture of slaves being transported from Africa

Slaves being transported in Africa, 19th century engraving. From Lehrbuch der Weltgeschichte oder Die Geschichte der Menschheit by William Rednbacher, 1890. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Why was the Plantation Church formed?

It is often forgotten that Africans who were captured and brought against their will to work on plantations in the New World left institutions of their clan and tribe behind. The creation of the Plantation Church was an attempt to hold body and soul together in an alien environment. In the Plantation Church, which was at first an African Church, Africans “stolen from the homeland” had to compensate for the loss of language, culture, and the constant change of environment as they were often sold and separated from members of their families. The cruelty meted out to Africans who traversed the Black Atlantic on route to the Caribbean and North American colonies for work in plantation society is beyond compare in the annals of the history of slavery. The Indians and Spaniards had the support and comfort of their families, their kinsfolk, their leaders, and their places of worship in their sufferings. Africans the most uprooted of all, were herded together like animals in a pen, always in a state of impotent rage, always filled with a longing for flight, freedom, change, and always having to adopt a defensive attitude of submission, pretense, and acculturation to the new world.

What characterized the Plantation Church?

Enslaved Africans on plantations “a long ways from home”, remembered home, and the memory of Africa became a controlling metaphor and organizing principle as they countered the hegemonic conditions imposed on them by their masters. There was a tension between their existence on plantations here in the New World and there in Africa, their home of origin. Here in plantation society they longed for there, their home, Africa – the forests, the ancestors, family, Gods and culture. They remembered the forests and they relived their experience of forests through the practice of religious rituals in the brush arbors, often down by the riverside. The memory of ancestors and a sense that their spirits accompanied them served as sites of a new consciousness on the plantations in which the struggle for survival and liberation took precedence. This awakening convinced them that they would survive through running away to the forests or through suicides that would reunite them with families and the Africa they remembered. It was primarily through religious rituals and the carving out of Black sacred spaces that enslaved persons were able to affirm self and create a world over against plantation society which was created for their families by the master. With the creation of the Plantation Church, the African priest and medicine man/woman were able to prevent the enslaved condition from dominating their consciousness and rob the children of Africa the freedom to dream a new world. It was the community’s memory of Africa that provided hope for dreaming the emergence of new worlds whether in Haiti, South Carolina, or Cuba.

Why is the Caribbean so important to the Plantation Church?

There were more than eleven million enslaved persons who were transported across the Black Atlantic and forced to work on plantations in the New World. Of this number, about 450, 000 arrived in the United States and all the rest went south of the border to the Caribbean nations and South America. More than twice the number of Africans who landed in the United States arrived in each of the islands of Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba.  Additionally, it must be noted that slavery began in the Caribbean as early as 1502, well over a hundred years before the first twenty Africans landed in James Town Virginia in 1619. The historical priority and the numerical advantage point to the Black religious experience being born in the Caribbean and not the United States of America.  W.E.B. Du Bois puts this in perspective, “American Negroes, to a much larger extent than they realize, are not only blood relatives to the West Indians but under deep obligations to them for many things. For instance, without the Haitian Revolt, there would have been no emancipation in America as early as 1863. I, myself, am of West Indian descent and am proud of the fact.”

Noel Leo Erskine is Professor of Theology and Ethics at Candler School of Theology and the Laney Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Emory University. He has been a visiting Professor in ten schools in six countries. His books include Plantation Church: How African American Religion Was Born in Caribbean Slavery, King Among the Thologians, and From Garvey to Marley.

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The post The Plantation Church: a Q&A with Noel Erskine appeared first on OUPblog.

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8. A Baby Elephant in the Wild: Caitlin O'Connell

Book: A Baby Elephant in the Wild
Author: Caitlin O'Connell
Photographs by: Caitlin O'Connell and Timothy Rodwell
Pages: 40
Age Range: 4-8

A Baby Elephant in the Wild is a nonfiction picture book that conveys facts about elephants by telling the story, with photographs, of the early life of a baby elephant named Liza. It's not clear to me who named the elephant Liza, but an author's note indicates that the author was a researcher studying elephants in Namibia who happened to be nearby when Liza was born. In any event, the narrative device of focusing the story on Liza works well, turning what could have been a dry recitation of facts into an engaging story. 

I think that readers of A Baby Elephant in the Wild will find themselves thinking, as I did, "elephants are really cool." My own daughter, on her second read-aloud of the book, was eager to tell me that Liza could still stand underneath her mother's belly, that all of the elephants were part of Liza's extended family, and that the mothers form a circle to protect the babies from lions. These details stuck with her, perhaps because of the truly fabulous photos. 

Here are a couple of snippets from the text:

"In this desert, a baby elephant named Liza takes her first breath after growing inside her mother for almost two years.

Liza is born weighing 250 pounds, the size of a grown black bear. Her mother weighs about 8,000 pounds."


"And within a day, she is able to keep up with the rest of her family: her mother, and aunt, and older brother, and a female cousin."

This second quote illustrates how the author keeps a very specific focus on Liza. She's not just some placeholder - she's a baby who has a brother and a cousin. I think this will help kids to relate to the story. 

I did choose, spontaneously, to edit some of the later pages in reading this book aloud to my daughter. She is 3 1/2, and I'm not sure that she needs to know that elephants might not have enough food to survive in the wild, or that "poachers looking for either meat or ivory also threaten elephants". But that's obviously each parent's decision.

I do think, despite the universal appeal of elephants, that this would be a better book for elementary school kids than for preschoolers. It is fairly text-dense. A "Did you know?" page at the end of the book adds additional facts about elephants, perfect for feeding the hunger for information of a curious 7-year-old.  

A Baby Elephant in the Wild offers young readers an in-depth look at the lives of African elephants, with stunning visuals. As it's clearly designed to do, it leaves readers with a sense of wonder about elephants in general, and a feeling of familiarity towards Liza in particular. It would make a nice addition to any elementary school library, or to the home bookshelves of those with a particular affinity for animals. 

Publisher: HMH Books for Young Readers (@HMHBooks)
Publication Date: March 18, 2014
Source of Book: Review copy from the publisher

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© 2014 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved. You can also follow me @JensBookPage or at my Growing Bookworms page on Facebook

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9. The Book Review Club - Parched

Melanie Crowder
Middle Grade

Summer has come and gone so quickly, fortunately packed with a lot of amazing reads. Which made choosing this first Fall review hard! I decided to go with my fellow Vermont College friend and amazing writer, Melanie Crowder's first book, Parched. You might argue that I'll be slightly biased in my review of this work, but this story, from its inklings to final version, won a few prestigious VCFA awards, landed Melanie her agent and first book contract. It doesn't need my bias. It stands... shines... all on its own.

Very succinctly, the story chronicles the struggles of a girl surviving on the parched African savanna and a boy escaping a d(r)ying city in search of water.

In only 160 pages, Crowder develops characters and situations so powerful they have followed me throughout all of my other reads. It's a little bit magical how she does this. It's as if she discovered Hemingway's secret for parsimony. The writing is sparse but fully packed. In some ways, it's as if poetic style has been applied to prose. For that reason alone, if you're looking for tricks of the trade, Crowder's work will keep you up nights deconstructing to figure out just how she does it.

POV is used extremely deftly. Whenever the story follows either child, POV is omniscient/close 3rd. However, this is interspersed with an unusual 1st person perspective from the POV of the main hunting dog. These short chapters are like a raw, direct, honest emotional punch that jolts the reader and pulls them deeper into story.

Finally, this story itself works like a dip into the pool of all the story that is going on around the characters. Crowder shows only what needs showing, while nevertheless belying a sense of extreme depth to her characters.

Spoiler Alert: Dogs do get hurt in this book. Yes, it is another dead dog book. My kids may never forgive me for buying it for them and urging them to read it. Protest signs against parental evilness line the walls of our house. I can think of no greater compliment for Crowder. She pulled them in. She made them care. She made them mourn and KEEP READING.

Move over Where the Red Fern Grows. There is a new contender for greatness. 

For more great reads, stroll over to Barrie Summy's site. She's serving them up cool and refreshing!

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10. Queen for a Day

Africa is My Home isn’t out till October, but marketing and publicity for it revved up yesterday with Candlewick featuring it at their NYC fall preview and having me do a signing of advanced copies at BEA.

I’ve been going to various publisher previews for years, but not as a featured author!  It was strange and wonderful.  They saved Africa for last and my editor Sarah Ketchersid did a wonderful job presenting it. After that I spoke a bit, several attendees who have been part of my long journey to publication did too and there was applause and a few tears, not all of them mine. I will say again, it has been a very long road to get here and I will never be able to thank enough all those who were there along the way.

Sarah and I then zipped over to the Javits Center. She went to meetings and I went to wander the exhibits until it was time for my signing. I’d been to BEA a few years ago, but it sure has changed since then in that most of the bigger publishers no longer have any books on display. That was mighty strange, but I’m not a bookseller so perhaps this works better for them and the convention is for them, after all, not for the likes of me. I happily spent time at some smaller publishers who DID have physical books on hand.

And then it was time for my signing. I arrived at Candlewick’s booth to discover this big poster:


They asked me what sort of pen I wanted to sign with and provided me with an assortment to choose from. Then the line began to form and I began to sign. And sign. And sign. I was incredibly touched by those I knew who came, but the majority were people I didn’t know at all. And many of them said such kind things about the book and the idea of the book. I so didn’t expect many to come to this signing so I was overwhelmed and very, very happy! (Candlewick did a great little Vine video of the signing you can view here as I can’t seem to embed it for some quirky wordpress-only-knows reason.)


Thank you, Candlewick, for my day as queen!

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11. Africa is My Home: The Cover! The Book Trailer!

While I can’t show you Robert Byrd‘s gorgeous interior art for Africa is My Home, I can show you the cover in the following book trailer. (And if you are at BEA, do stop by the Candlewick Press booth for a more comprehensive look or, even better, come to my Thursday 3:30 signing of F&Gs of the complete 64 page book.)

10 Comments on Africa is My Home: The Cover! The Book Trailer!, last added: 5/31/2013
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12. Achebe

Chinua Achebe, 1930-2013

It's going to take me a while to have anything coherent to say about Chinua Achebe now that he has died. Not just because he was a great writer — and he was a great writer, as Aaron Bady says, "full stop". But because, right now at least, I can't think of a more deeply influential writer in our era. Not just for Things Fall Apart, though that book certainly did a lot. But for so much else — his work as an editor for the African Writers Series, his essays on Conrad, his championing of Amos Tutuola after Tutuola's work had gone out of fashion, etc. etc. (If you ever needed evidence of the irrelevance of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the fact that Achebe never won it is Exhibit A.)

The best writing I've seen so far on Achebe in the wake of his death comes from Keguro Macharia. You should read the whole, beautiful essay, but here is a taste:
His departure now – euphemism must be used, if only once – feels much like an encounter with his work: it was unexpected because it had been possible to believe that he was beyond mortality. Achebe simply was. He existed in the world and the world existed because he did. I could afford to take his existence for granted, could afford not to teach or discuss or write about his work, because he simply was. His being in the world made certain things unnecessary. Because he was. Certain figures inspire a kind of faith that they have transcended death, and their deaths hit all the harder – most recently for me, Adrienne Rich who, like Achebe, simply was. When they die – euphemisms can no longer work – we continue to call their names, hoping that they will return to us, that their ghosts will continue to energize the labor they started and sustained and that we now feel unable to continue. So it is that we continue to call for Audre Lorde. Believing, as we must, that she can still provide the right words, the necessary words, the transforming words.

Simon Gikandi has written that Chinua Achebe “invented” African literature. This is not a claim about who wrote first – other Africans wrote before Achebe. Nor is it a claim about the volume of his work – others have written more. It is a claim, I think, about Achebe as an institution builder, as one who made possible a certain kind of imagination and, in his role as editor with the African Writers Series, made possible many other imaginations for African literature. Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be given to a writer is this: that a particular book has been written. A particular imagination explored. A room populated. And multiple other rooms made possible.

Few contemporary Africans, if any, feel the need to write another Things Fall Apart. Indeed, by the mid-1960s, Things Fall Apart could not be written again. Achebe’s work had given African writers the permission to pursue their geo-histories, to take multiple paths, to pursue the mystical and the routine, the profane urban and the perverse rural, the unending past and the foreclosed future. Things Fall Apart had been written, and African writing pursued its multiple afters, with Achebe as inspiration, as guide, and as champion.

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13. Learning About Africa: Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History

Abina and the Important Men is a compelling and powerfully illustrated “graphic history” based on an 1876 court transcript of a West African woman named Abina, who was wrongfully enslaved and took her case to court. The book is a microhistory that does much more than simply depict an event in the past; it uses the power of illustration to convey important themes in world history and to reveal the processes by which history is made.

The above is from the publisher’s description of Trevor Getz and Liz Clarke’s Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History  which has just been honored by the Africana Awards as one of its “2013 Best Books for Older Readers.” It is an outstanding presentation of the complexities of slavery in late 19th century West Africa as well as remarkably clear and thoughtful consideration of the difficult work of doing history. Additionally, it also brings to us one of the “silenced,” the many in history we just don’t learn about because there isn’t  enough of the primary source paper trail that we tend to rely on when piecing together the past.

Here’s what I just wrote about it on goodreads:

Outstanding. This book seems to have gone under-the-radar in the broader world and it shouldn’t have. I had seen something about it a while back and finally had the time to read it and it is fantastic. It is, as the subtitle indicates, a graphic history. That is, it is a history book and one unapologetically didactic. And as far as I know, pretty unique.

The book consists of several parts. The first is an illustrated “graphic history” (so described in the flap copy) based on the 1876 court transcript of an attempt by Abina, a young West African woman in what is now Ghana and was then termed the Gold Coast to convince the “important men” of the court (jury, judge, lawyers, etc) that she was a free woman not enslaved. It might seem to have been a simple case, but it was not. What the author and illustrator do remarkably well is articulate the complexity of the situation. That is, while slavery by then had been long ostensibly been outlawed in the British Empire (of which the Gold Coast was part) there had also been tacit overlooked versions of it being maintained by wealthy men who helped supply the palm oil then eagerly wanted in Europe. The graphic novel part of the book is moving, compelling, and riveting. The art is well done and artist and author have done an excellent job weaving together what they know with what they imagined about the case and Abina. ( The author says this isn’t historical fiction and I suppose it isn’t a novel, but he and the illustrator have had to imagine things so I’m not sure what it is then.)

But that isn’t all. it is followed by a facsimile of the transcript, and then a section titled “Historical Context” that provides a clear series of essays on a variety of relevant topic such as “The British Civilizing Mission,” “Slavery in the Gold Coast,” and “The Atlantic Slave Trade and Abolition.” Next comes a section titled “Reading Guide” that is fantastic. The author unpacks the many troubling aspects of attempting to consider the many aspects of the story. And so he considers “Whose Story is This?,” “Is this a ‘True’ Story?,” and “Is This ‘Authentic’ History?” Finally, there is a section on “Abina in the Classroom” with different ways of using it. While the focus is on college teaching, it is clearly accessible to high school students too. The book closes with excellent back matter including the preliminary sketches by the artist for the comic.

There are many, many reasons to find and read this book and to get it into the hands of teens, those who teach high school world history, and more. Not to mention it seems perfection for those needing to address Common Core issues.  (For those interested in classroom use I recommend exploring H-Net’s Abina Forum which has a number of posts related to its use in the colleget classroom.)

The most important reason for me is that this is a smart and beautifully done attempt to bring to life one of the silenced. As the author notes, history is told by use of material that we have about the past and too often we don’t have anything about so many because they did not leave paper trails. We happen to know about Abina because someone left a transcript of her court case. And because Getz made it his mission to get it out to us.


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14. futurejournalismproject: Reporting on Africa Through...


Reporting on Africa Through Interactive Comics

via Color Lines:

I ask Bunmi Oloruntoba why he works in comics; his answer speaks volumes.

“In many ways, the medium is like the African continent itself: it’s misrepresented,” he says. “When it comes to the continent, you know, it’s the conflict, it’s war, it’s the famine. And in comics, it’s Spiderman, the Hulk, superheroes! One genre within the medium has grown so large that it eclipses the medium, and people can’t see the potential. Just like it’s hard to see the humanity, the complexity, the drive of all the things Africans are doing, because it’s been eclipsed.”

This eclipsing is what novelist Chimamanda Adichie has called the problem of the ‘single story.’ Oloruntoba, a Nigerian-born journalist and academic in Washington, D.C., is proposing a solution: collide Africa’s single-story problem against comics’ single-story problem, and see what interesting new particles appear. With literary editor Emmanuel Iduma, he runs 3Bute.com (pronounced tri-bute), adapting other writers’ stories about Africa into three-page comics — and then wrapping those comics in a ‘mashable’ layer that lets any reader dot the panels with their own public annotations. Mouse over a drawing of a laptop surrounded by partiers, and you can watch a Youtube music video of the Hausa hit they might be dancing to; mouse over a drawing of Charles Chikwanje boldly refusing to reveal the name of his gay lover on Malawi television, and get a recommendation for a biography of Bayard Rustin. It’s new-media innovation, historical context, Wikipedia rabbithole, and sometimes even loyal dissent, side by side. And all of it is a living antithesis to the single story.

FJP: What’s really neat is that 3Bute uses what they call a mash-up platform that lets writers and artists collaborate on the 3 page visualizations. Each works like a pinboard where readers can tag a story with relevant context. Visit the site and check it out.

Image: 3bute.com collaborated with the Caine Prize, Africa’s leading literary prize, to adapt all the stories shortlisted into comics. Above is a screenshot from Bombay’s Republic by Rotimi Babatunde.

This relates to our previous post on the state of editorial cartooning in Canada and the US, specifically about what was said regarding “journalistic cartooning” in other parts of the world (I’m paraphrasing).

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15. Laugh with the Moon by Shana Burg

By Shana Burg, for The Children’s Book Review
Published: July 28, 2012

Shana Burg is the author of A Thousand Never Evers (Random House, 2008) and Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012). Both novels are for tween, teen, and adult readers. In a starred review, Publishers Weekly wrote, “Gripping. Delivers an emotional wallop.” Kirkus Reviews calls Laugh with the Moon “A vivid work of art.” 

Laugh with the Moon tells the story of a 13-year-old girl from Massachusetts whose father brings her to live in the bush in Malawi, Africa after the death of her mother.

Laugh with the Moon (Random House, 2012) grew out of one of the greatest adventures of my life. One week I was a graduate student studying public policy at the Harvard’s Kennedy School in Massachusetts. The next, I found myself in a Land Rover tooling through the bush in Central Africa with my driver, translator, and new friend Norman Mbalazo.

I went to Malawi under the guidance of a professor to investigate whether the girls in Malawi’s primary schools had the same access to learning materials like teachers, books, and pencils as the boys did. “I’m not qualified to do that!” I told my professor. But she convinced me that what was really needed was “a fresh pair of eyes.” Her eyes were tired. She had been visiting Malawi for many, many years.

Image courtesy of Shana Burg.

So there I was, in the African jungle, with Norman and my fresh pair of eyes, slowly being transformed by the people I met in this tiny, landlocked country that is one of the poorest on earth. What I saw in the rural schools fascinated me. Yes, sometimes there were 200 students packed into a single classroom sitting on the floor. Yes, often there were roosters walking around inside the schools. And yes, many of the students learned outside in the middle of the rainy season, which meant that whenever the rains came, class was over for the day.

Image courtesy of Shana Burg.

But with my fresh pair of eyes, I also saw the amazing ways that students and teachers were dealing with the cards they’d been dealt. Teachers taught students the alphabet by having them make letters out of termite hill mud, and draw with sticks in the dirt.

In some schools, older students helped teach younger students as the adult teachers roamed from room to room. If a teacher did not

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16. Book Review: Laugh with the Moon, by Shana Burg (Random House, 2012)

Recommended for ages 9-14.

Having recently returned from my first trip to Africa, I was eager to read this new novel by author Shana Burg which takes place in Malawi.  Thirteen-year old Clare has just suffered one of the worst losses a child can imagine--her mother has died, leaving her family consisting of just her and her father, a doctor who seems to care about everyone else more than Clare.  At least that's the way she feels when he up and moves the two of them to rural Malawi for several months, where he will be working at the local hospital and she will attend the local village school.

But this novel is more than a "fish out of water" story as Clare struggles to adapt to a completely foreign environment and lifestyle, where she has no cell phone coverage, must wear a totally unfashionable school uniform, and live literally in the middle of the jungle, with no condos, buses, or restaurants.  She's so angry with her dad that she's giving him the silent treatment.  But eventually the people of Malawi break through her broken heart, helping her to heal.

Burg, who has worked in Malawi herself with Save the Children, does a terrific job capturing the many wonders of Africa--the spirit of the people, the beauties of the landscape and animals, and the crushing poverty.  Young girls will identify with Clare trying to fit in with the local girls--gossiping about boys and who likes whom seems to be a universally popular occupation--as well as her sorrows and achievements during her trip.  And they'll be amazed at how the children in the local school manage with hardly any textbooks (which must be taken for safekeeping from school every day so they won't be stolen), paper, desks, or other ordinary school supplies that we take for granted, even sculpting letters out of termite mounds.  Clare, like everyone else who visits Africa, I suspect, is the not the same person when she leaves.

This novel manages to combine humor (naughty monkeys and pet chickens, in particular) with the poignancy of loss in a way which is appealing to the target audience.  Burg also manages to teach many lessons about Africa in a subtle manner, without seeming didactic.

author Shana Burg in Malawi

An author's note explains about the author's trip to Africa to investigate conditions in schools in Malawi and also discusses the challenges of medical care in this very poor country.  She also includes a recipe for a Malawi treat and a glossary of Chichewa words that appear in the text.  I would have liked to see a map of Africa which would have situated Malawi for the young readers, and possibly a list of nonprofits that accept contributions for medical or school projects, in the case that young people are inspired to help out for these very worthy causes as part of the back matter.

This would be a great book to add to school and public library collections--it's a contemporary story in an exotic setting that should definitely appeal to tween readers.

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17. Week-end Book Review: Dear Baobab by Cheryl Foggo, illustrated by Qin Leng

Cheryl Foggo, illustrated by Qin Leng,
Dear Baobab

Second Story Press, 2011.

Ages 7-11

Following the death of his parents, seven-year-old Maiko has had to leave all that was familiar, encapsulated in his memory of the ancient baobab tree in his village, to come and live with his aunt and uncle in their red brick house in a Western city. Maiko forms a special bond with a small fir tree growing outside the house.  He listens to its whisperings, and confides his feelings and anxieties to it: his homesickness; and how Leonard, a boy at school, laughs at his ears.  When his aunt and uncle decide that the tree needs to be cut down, Maiko tries to protect it by hiding the tools.  Only when the inevitable day arrives, do his aunt and uncle realise the tree’s importance to Maiko, and an alternative solution is found.

The story is straightforward enough to appeal to young readers.  They will appreciate the way his love of his two special trees helps him to emerge with confidence from the unsettling changes in his life.  In addition, there is a subtle depth to the narrative that will make it appealing to older readers.  When Maiko hides the tools, for example, his aunt berates his uncle for leaving them out to be stolen.  The situation is not then tidily resolved – Maiko does not confess – and readers therefore find themselves asking questions that have no single straightforward answer.  The same is true of Leonard.  Something has certainly happened behind the scenes between Maiko’s telling his uncle about how he is being teased at school and our next encounter with Leonard.  It is enough to hear explicitly that while Maiko is playing with his friend Li, “They saw Leonard.  He did not laugh at Maiko’s ears.”  Older readers will probably pick up on this and ponder it.  The illustrations emphasise these key moments too.  They convey Maiko’s emotions throughout the story: his sadness , worry and guilt, but also his happiness playing in the snow, for example, or his exuberant play with Li when dressed up as a baobab for his first Halloween.

Dear Baobab is a gentle story about settling into a new home and a new culture.  It opens up many questions for young readers, who will be touched by its universally relevant themes of bullying and belonging.

Marjorie Coughlan
September 2012

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18. Nigerian Tribune Article: International Literacy Day: Promoting literacy to tackle insecurity

African Library Project recently posted a link on their Facebook page to an interesting article published in the Nigerian Tribune: International Literacy Day: Promoting literacy to tackle insecurityLiteracy and Peace was the theme for this year’s International Literacy Day, which was celebrated on September 8, and in the article writer Adewale Oshodi examines the connection between literacy and peace in Nigeria.

According to UNESCO’s Global Monitoring Report on Education for All, sub-Saharan Africa still has one of the lowest regional literacy rates, and not much is being done towards raising the level in this part of the world. This should, therefore, give everybody a cause for concern, especially the fact that there is a link between illiteracy and violence, and going by what is happening in most African countries, South of the Sahara, it is high time the authorities took the issue of literacy seriously.

Oshodi compares the rates of literacy, violence and poverty in different regions of Nigeria and concludes

With this analysis, it can be ascertained that there is a link between illiteracy and violence, and this year’s International Literacy Day’s theme, Literacy and Peace, should be taken seriously by those in positions of authority, thereby making it possible for a larger percentage of the populace to acquire education, and as a result of this, conflicts and violence are being eliminated in a way.

The article continues with Oshodi interviewing  government officials on their thoughts about the correlation between literacy and peace and what steps and programs are being implemented to improve literacy in their regions.

To add your thoughts on the article, come join  in the discussion happening on African Library Project’s Facebook page.

To learn more about our Spirit of PaperTigers Project which works to advance education through books and reading, and development through clean and accessible water, in various regions and areas throughout the world, click here .

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19. Eliot Schrefer’s ENDANGERED

I absolutely did not want to read this book. The advance reader copy sat on my shelf for months untouched as I assumed it was yet another book offering a simplistic view of Africa, one that focused on the plight of an exotic animal while barely acknowledging the complications of the people who lived around it. Having lived in Sierra Leone for two years in the 70s, I’m techy about how the continent is represented, especially by well-intentioned outsiders who focus on its animals at the expense of its people.  That said, I know that it is very, very hard to even begin to present to anyone, much less to a young person, the horrible complicated conflicts such as what happened in Sierra Leone a decade ago and what is still happening in the Congo.  It was only when I saw that the book was a finalist for the National Book Award that I finally picked it up.  And then did not put it down again until I was done.

The story is from the point of view of Sophie, the product of a Congolese mother who runs a sanctuary for rescued bonobos and an American father. When her parents split up, because schooling would be better in the States she returned there with her father, coming back during vacations to be with her mother. As the book begins Sophie is traveling to her mother’s sanctuary when she spots a young bonobo with a trader and buys him, recklessly ignoring the Congolese sanctuary worker who tells her they never do that, it will cause problems, that they only rescue those that are brought to them.

At the sanctuary Sophie works to save the young ape whom she names Otto. It takes no time at all for the two of them to become permanently connected, Sophie functioning as the young bonono’s mother. Schrefer quickly and effectively gives us a sense of the sanctuary, of Sophie’s mother, the other workers, and the specifics of the bononos who are the closest of the great apes to humans.  Schrefer, with remarkable effectiveness and without sentimentality, again and again throughout the book shows readers this commonality, making readers think hard about ourselves as humans and our relationship to others in this world.

Shortly after Sophie’s arrival the war arrives at the sanctuary.  Schrefer does not shy away at his depiction of the horrors of this. In fact, it was this that won me over completely. For I followed closely the conflict in Sierra Leone, a place I knew well long ago, and there are many commonalities to what has happened in the Congo;  the drugged child-soldiers, the frightened villagers, the many dreadful things that have been reported from both regions are all too familiar to me. Schrefer presents them truthfully, at times terrifyingly, and sensitively all steadfastly through Sophie’s eyes.

Unable to abandon Otto, instead of leaving the country with the UN, Sophie flees with him.  At first she stays with other bononos, but eventually she has to leave them too and sets out on a difficult journey to find her mother who had been releasing bononos back into the wild in another part of the country when the war began.

Sophie is a remarkable character, full of grit and gumption, and readers are bound to be riveted as her efforts to save Otto and herself are tested again and again as they make their journey.  Schrefer does an amazing job communicating their physical and emotional hardships, giving readers a feel for the community and ways of the bononos and how they link to us humans, and also a straightforward view of the way the conflict affects humans as well, both the victims and the transgressors.

By the end, I was completely won over. Schrefer has crafted an outstanding work about Africa, about bononos, and about the complexities of the relationship we humans have with the world around us.

1 Comments on Eliot Schrefer’s ENDANGERED, last added: 11/12/2012
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20. A Remarkable Young Inventor

I just heard about Kelvin Doe, a 15 year-old Sierra Leonean who is featured on the following video, part of an intriguing series about prodigies.

2 Comments on A Remarkable Young Inventor, last added: 12/14/2012
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21. Twelve Dancing Princesses

Twelve Dancing Princesses, by Rachel Isadora
A Caldecott Honor-winning illustrator gives this classic fairy tale a brand-new setting!
Night after night, the twelve princesses mysteriously wear out their shoes. But how? The king promises a great reward to any man who can solve the mystery. Rachel Isadora has revitalized and reimagined this well-loved Brothers Grimm fairytale by bringing the story of the twelve princesses to Africa...

If you liked this, try:
The Fisherman and his Wife
Sleeping Beauty
Baba Yaga and Vasilisa the Brave
Puss in Boots
The Wild Swans

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22. Sundiata

Sundiata: King of Mali

An inspiring tale of courage and determination...This is the story of Sundiata, who overcame physical handicaps, social disgrace, and strong opposition to rule Mali in the thirteenth century. 

If you liked this, try:
Mansa Musa
Traveling Man
Rain Player
The Girl who Spun Gold
Ashanti to Zulu

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23. Friendship up on high

ohdeargeoffrey_frontcoverOh Dear, Geoffrey! by Gemma O’Neill is a tale of friendship, finding out about yourself and what suits you best.

Geoffrey is a giraffe, keen to make friends. But when he reaches down low to say hello to the meerkats he stumbles, when he tries to make friends at the watering hole he slips and slides and makes a huge splash. Needless to say, Geoffrey hasn’t quite found his niche. Fed up with being clumsy and unappreciated, he sets off to find some comfort in food, with a nibble of his favourite leaves in a tall tree.

And here, where giraffes are at home, with their neck high up amongst the branches, Geoffrey is able to find friends; monkeys and birds, who also love tall trees, where “You can reach as high as the sky…and see as far as the stars!


This is an easy book to enjoy reading aloud, with lots of sentence internal rhyme, and great use of onomatopoeic words. Both the text and the illustrations reminded me somewhat of Catherine Rayner‘s Solomon Crocodile (which I reviewed here); not just the theme of finding the right friends, but also the use of scale and splatter in the illustrations. In one spread, we only see the lower half of the giraffe’s legs, so tall is he that he can’t fit on the page. In another the giraffe’s nose manages to peer over the edge of the page, again giving us readers and viewers a sense of just how large the giraffe really is. Compared to Rayner’s illustrations, O’Neill’s pictures are glossier, with more intense jewel tones (rather than softer watercolours), and may appeal more to those who like crisp edges and a digital aesthetic.

Seeing as we’re starting to warm up for the forthcoming Edible Book Festival we set about baking some giraffe biscuit, taking inspiration from the patterns on a giraffe’s hide.


Ingredients for giraffe biscuits

  • 150 g plain flour and 60 g cocoa (for brown biscuits) or 110g plain flour plus some yellow food colouring (for yellow biscuits)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • A pinch of salt
  • 200 g caster sugar
  • 60 g unsalted butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 50g icing sugar plus either some cocoa (for brown topping to go on yellow biscuits) or yellow edible dusting colour like this (for yellow topping to go on brown biscuits)
  • 1. To make brown biscuits with yellow patterns, sift the flour, cocoa, baking powder, salt and sugar into your food processor’s bowl. Add the butter and mix in the processor until it looks like coarse breadcrumbs.

    2. Add the egg and vanilla to the food processor bowl and mix into the “breadcrumbs”. The ingredients will come together to form a sticky mass. Put the bowl into your fridge for 30 minutes or thereabouts to firm up.

    3. Preheat the oven to 200°C (Gas Mark 6). Line two baking trays with baking paper.

    4. Sift the icing sugar and yellow edible dusting colour into a bowl. After 30 minutes in the fridge, shape the dough into walnut-sized balls and drop into the now yellow icing sugar, tossing until well coated. Place on the baking trays, leaving about 5 cm between each. Bake for 10–12 minutes or until just set when lightly touched. Cool on the trays for 5 minutes before transferring to wire racks to cool completely.

    Although the dough goes into the over completely covered in icing sugar, it “cracks” as it cooks and cools, and so when the biscuits come out of the oven they have this pattern that is a little like that you find on giraffes.

    To make the yellow biscuits with brown patterns, use 110g of flour instead of the flour/cocoa mix, but add yellow food colouring (preferably the thicker paste like this) to the food processor bowl to get the desired yellowness of dough. When the dough has set a little, roll it in a mixture of icing sugar and cocoa.

    We were delighted with the results, both visually and gastronomically!




    Whilst baking and munching we listened to:

  • Joshua Giraffe by Raffi
  • Gertie the Giraffe (not the greatest song writing ever but somehow it will get probably get stuck in your head)
  • The Giraffe by Rockin’ Rocky
  • Other activities which would be fun to do alongside reading Oh Dear, Geoffrey! include:

  • Putting a giraffe sandwich in your kid’s lunchbox – take inspiration from this post by bentoriffic
  • Raiding your washing line to make a giraffe out of clothes pegs, like this one on Parents.com.
  • Building a giraffe out of recycled boxes and tubes, as per this idea from the National Wildlife Federation.
  • And if you work for the council, perhaps you could persuade them to install these giraffe swing powered lights at bus stops – I think this would do a lot to encourage people to get out and use public transport!

  • Do you have a favourite fictional Giraffe?

    Disclosure: I received a free copy of Oh Dear, Geoffrey! from the publisher. I was under no obligation to review the book and received no payment for this review.


    3 Comments on Friendship up on high, last added: 1/21/2013
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    24. Images of Ancient Nubia

    For most of the modern world, ancient Nubia seems an unknown and enigmatic land. Only a handful of archaeologists have studied its history or unearthed the Nubian cities, temples, and cemeteries that once dotted the landscape of southern Egypt and northern Sudan. Nubia’s remote setting in the midst of an inhospitable desert, with access by river blocked by impassable rapids, has lent it not only an air of mystery, but also isolated it from exploration. Scholars have more recently begun to focus attention on the fascinating cultures of ancient Nubia, prompted by the construction of large dams that have flooded vast tracts of the ancient land. These photos by Chester Higgins Jr., photographer of Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile, reveal the remarkable history, architecture, culture, and altogether rich legacy of the ancient Nubians.


    Ancient Nubia: African Kingdoms on the Nile attempts to document some of what has recently been discovered about ancient Nubia, with its remarkable history, architecture, and culture, and thereby to give us a picture of this rich, but unfamiliar, African legacy. It is edited by Marjorie Fisher, Peter Lacovara, Sue D’Auria and Salima Ikram, photographs are by Chester New York City, and the foreword by Zahi Cairo. It is published by American University in Cairo Press.

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    Image credit: All images used with permission of American University in Cairo Press. All rights reserved.

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    0 Comments on Images of Ancient Nubia as of 2/25/2013 8:45:00 AM
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    25. Joseph Mbele's book AFRICANS AND AMERICANS

    Our class, "Culture and History of South Africa,"  read Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences last week. The author, Joseph Mbele came to visit us on Tuesday. It was unanimously considered a DELIGHT.

    The book is a fast read, and Joseph Mbele writes in a converational, welcoming style that sucks you right in, keeps you laughing, and keeps you reading. 

    In person, Joseph proved to be one of the most brilliant, funny, warm, and gentle human beings I've ever met. My students loved him; the two hours with him flew past.

    Africans and Americans: Embracing Cultural DifferencesAfricans and Americans: Embracing Cultural Differences by Joseph L. Mbele
    My rating: 5 of 5 stars

    This was the most delightful read about the differences between Africans and Americans and how we relate to each other. My students loved it, found it fascinating, and flew through it.

    If you have students, friends, neighbors, classmates, ANYBODY you know from Africa, this book is for you. If you are traveling to Africa, like my students and I are, it's a MUST.

    Best part? Now whenever I am late (no, that never happens), I can say I'm on AFRICA TIME.

    View all my reviews

    0 Comments on Joseph Mbele's book AFRICANS AND AMERICANS as of 3/4/2013 10:14:00 AM
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