a list straight from my heart…five books for learning about West Africa

Children of Tenkelen, photo by Kurt Swanson

Children of Tenkelen, photo by Kurt Swanson

The Ebola crisis engulfing several West African nations hits close to my heart.

When our children were young, we lived in Guinea, the country where this terrible epidemic began. In fact, my husband was visting Guinea in March when the news broke that Ebola had been identified there, and we have been following the story closely ever since.

As well, the mission we served with, SIM, is heavily involved with treating Ebola patients in Liberia. It’s our dear friends and former colleagues who are grappling first hand with this monumental health crisis.

West Africa mostly flies under the radar for Americans. With so much news coverage just now, I thought I’d encourage you to explore this region with your children — a land with a rich, exotic history, tropical delights, and warmhearted people, yet also a region that has seen decades of shattering conflict and the grievous use of child soldiers.

I’ve chosen to limit myself to books set in four countries affected by Ebola — Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria. Beginning with the king of a medieval empire…

sundiata lion king of mali cover imageSundiata: Lion King of Mali, story and pictures by David Wisniewski
published in 1992 by Clarion Books

Told by a griot — an oral historian of West Africa —  this is the dazzling story of the first king of the mighty Mali empire, whose vast realm included present day Guinea. “Listen, then,” our griot says, ” to the story of Sundiata, the Lion King, who overcame all things tosundiata illustration wisniewski 001 walk with greatness.”

Sundiata was born to the homely second wife of a great king in fulfillment of an old prophecy. Though weak from birth, Sundiata was strong in spirit and threatened to displace his older half-brother as heir to the throne. The wicked, spiteful queen conspired against Sundiata until finally he and his poor mother fled for their lives.

As they departed their homeland, Sundiata’s mother told him: “When you are a man, you will return and set all things right.”

Sundiata’s weary wanderings took him across burning desert sands, past caravans of traders, along the banks of the Niger River, until one day he was summoned by his people to lead them in an epic battle against a sorcerer king.

David Wisniewski’s dramatic cut paper illustrations sweep us into this tale of splendor. The brilliant cayennes and lapis lazuli and gold, the geometric patterns of Islam, voluminous African robes, sandswept landscapes, eerie witches, thundering cavalries, all create a heightened sense of drama. His lengthy Author’s Note is fascinating, summarizing the historic facts surrounding Sundiata and his extensive research for the illustrations.

Terrific read for ages 4 and up.

mansa musa the lion of mali cover imageMansa Musa: The Lion of Mali
by Khephra Burns
illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon

published in 2001 by Gulliver Books

Some years after the death of Sundiata, a new ruler arose who became the Malian Empire’s most famous king.

Mansa Musa (King Musa)  is legendary for his extravagant pilgrimage across the Sahara to Mecca. His retinue numbered in the tens of thousands and fairly dripped with gold. He lavishly distributed thousands of pounds of gold along the way,  returned with loads of books, scholars, and architects, and made a mark on the world that would never be forgotten. Recently, he was named the wealthiest man in the history of the world.

Khephra Burns has written a mesmerizing, imagined account of Mansa Musa’s boyhood and accession to the throne. In beautiful, evocative language, Burns wafts us into the land of jinns and date palms, sandstorms and Tuaregs, spinning a tale of magical realism that introduces desert customs, the medieval streets of Cairo, and the jaw-dropping wealth of this 14th-century ruler.

mansa musa illustration leo and diane dillon

The brilliant team of Leo and Diane Dillon illustrated this book. Their sumptuous paintings richly portray the landscapes and clothing, patterns and architecture of the empire, but far more than that, they capture the mood of lonely deserts, terrifying Tuareg raids, exotic markets, and royal splendor. 

It’s a longer-than-usual story for a picture book, suited to ages 7 through adult. A fascinating, brief history of Mansa Musa can be found at this link, if you want to know more.

anna hibiscus cover imageAnna Hibiscus, by Atinuke, illustrated by Lauren Tobia
first published in the U.S. in 2010 by Kane Miller

Anna Hibiscus is a delightful little girl who lives in Nigeria where “the trees are full of sweet, ripe fruit” and the city is full of “lagoons and bridges and roads, of skyscrapers and shanty towns.”

She is part of a big, extended family including her Canadian mom, anna hibiscus illustration lauren tobia 001Nigerian dad,  and two slightly-troublesome twin baby brothers.

In this sunny chapter book, perfectly suited to readers ready to move into a first chapter book, Anna interacts joyously with her loving family and enjoys their modern, middle-class, African way of life. Gently humorous stories of a beach vacation, a visit from an auntie who lives across the ocean, a failed attempt to sell oranges, and her dream of seeing snow, endear us to Anna Hibiscus, her entire hubbub of a family, and her Nigerian culture.

Atinuke, who spent her childhood in both Nigeria and the UK, is a superb storyteller. I loved the African dialect and syntax which sounded familiar to my ear. I loved the very positive view of African culture. I loved the setting in modern Lagos. I loved the big, happy family Anna is a part of. And I loved Lauren Tobia’s charming, lighthanded drawings which perfectly suit the mood of the story.

There are a number of other Anna Hibiscus titles in this series, so if you like it, you can search for more.

son of a gun cover imageSon of a Gun, by Anne de Graaf, photographs by Anne de Graaf
English edition published in 2012 by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers

The series of civil wars which tore Liberian society to pieces from about 1989 to 2005 are a heartbreaking slice of Liberian history. Rebel soldiers and Liberian government forces fought one another and subjected the Liberian people to unspeakably brutal violence. Perhaps the worst of it, if there can be any “worst” was the kidnapping and forced deployment of tens of thousands of boys and girls as child soldiers by the guerilla fighters.from myblessedlife dot net

A heavy topic, to say the least.

Dutch author Anne de Graaf has written a powerful account of a brother and sister, ages 8 and 10, cast into the horrific role of killers at an age when they should have been learning in school and playing on the beautiful beaches of Monrovia. It is a realistic, harsh, tragic story, and not for the young. I would recommend it for ages 12 to adult.

Told with alternating narrators, we witness terrifying days and nights when they are “forced to live a nightmare.” You will begin to appreciate the mountain that is theirs to climb in order to regain peace of mind and soul, return to school and normalcy, and become part of a healthy society once again.

The story is about 80 pages. Additionally, there are pages of photographs and end notes about Liberia’s climate, food, daily life, education, history, wars, and child soldiers.

be patient abdul cover imageBe Patient, Abdul, written and illustrated by Dolores Sandoval
published in 1996 by Margaret K. McElderry Books

Abdul is a seven-year-old boy from Freetown, Sierra Leone. His dream is to go to school, but his family cannot afford the school fees. So, Abdul sells oranges.

The problem is, many days there are simply not many buyers. Abdul trudges along the roads and into the busy markets, but still, he earns a pitiful amount of money towards his schooling. His parents only say: Be patient. By and by, you will earn enough to go back to school.

I like this story because it doesn’t paint an be patient abdul illustration sandoval 001unrealistic, easy solution to Abdul’s difficulties. It is not easy for a young boy to earn enough money for school fees. People don’t just snap up his oranges so everything can be sunny for Abdul. Instead, there are a lot of discouraging days, and only the admonition to have patience.

Meanwhile, we get to see a lovely smattering of Sierra Leonian culture, including King Jimmy Market, evening prayers, the historic cotton tree in the town center, independence parade stiltwalkers, the ever-present taxis, ladies’ clubs, and more. In the end, Abdul’s father is able to provide for him to return to school, which is an appropriate and sweet solution.

It’s a pleasant, quiet little story, for ages 4 and up, and one of the very few I could find set in Sierra Leone.



ebola sign bbc dot co dot ukAlthough I never use my blog as a money-raising platform, today I want to offer some links to three organizations on the Ebola frontlines. These ordinary people are tackling a major global health crisis with limited resources. If you want to help, you might consider a donation to one of them.

sim-logo_transparentSIM has been working in West Africa for over 100 years. These are the folks that built ELWA hospital and with Liberian co-workers are managing the Ebola care unit there. They are a nondenominational, Christian mission with top-notch financial integrity and accountablility. That link is here.

samaritans-purse logoSamaritan’s Purse is a well-known, nondenominational, Christian relief organization with world-wide projects, including ten years in Liberia. They are partnering with SIM in Ebola care, including a vital, public health education campaign. The link is here.

msf logoDoctors Without Borders, the English branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, is a worldwide, political-and-faith neutral group who provide health care in every extreme situation you can think of.  They are unable to earmark your donation to the Ebola fight, but all their work is vital. That link is here

Thank you for caring with me about the peoples of West Africa.