Recently, one of our newspapers in England carried a photograph of a woman who had founded a charity in East Africa. She was reading a book about a jungle and wild animals to African children to connect them to "their heritage." It is doubtful that these children or their parents had any experience with lions or giraffes. I never saw any growing up in Nigeria. My first experience with wild animals was at the zoo.
I am a photographer and an author. I grew up in Nigeria and have travelled widely in Africa. My books tell and show young people the Africa that I have experienced. I am interested in tradition, so I make a conscious effort to set my books around local customs and practices.
Here Comes our Bride (CABA, 2005) is set in Benin City, Nigeria. I show the typical steps families undergo before a traditional wedding can take place. We also see how Western culture has influenced wedding practices. After the traditional wedding, the bride and groom dress in a white bridal gown and tuxedo and have a ceremony in a Christian church.
I love games and believe that children learn a lot through play. In the late 1990s, I went to Nigeria in search of the games I used to play as a child. My urban nieces and nephews had never heard or played any of the games. Fortunately, in our home village, I found a few children who knew the games. The result was Ebele's Favourite, a picture book that includes 10 traditional Nigerian games and instructions for playing the games.
One of my latest books, Play (part of the Look at This series) also focuses on the games children enjoy but in Mali, a country with a very rich African heritage.
Rites of passage are universal and all cultures have special ways of welcoming children into the world. In Welcome Dede we see how Ga people in Ghana celebrate the birth of a new child. The whole clan is invited to a naming ceremony. Relatives arrive in traditional clothes, say prayers for the baby and bring presents. The baby is dressed and god parents will bring him/her forward. After prayers are said to the ancestors, the child's name is announced for the first time, and it's now official; the baby has a name.
Language is an invaluable window into the culture of the people. In my book Chidi Only Likes Blue, An African Book of Colours, I sprinkle Igbo words throughout the story, for example Igwe pronounced (ee-gweh)
means king, uli, pronounced (oo-lee) is the juice made from the seeds of uli tree and is used for painting the walls of houses and in some cases, for body painting - a temporary tattoo if you like. My own sons were raised in London but I made sure they spoke Igbo. Speaking Igbo has been a great asset; they feel at home in Nigeria, can communicate with their cousins, make new friends and have a broader perceptive on life.
In Ikenna Goes to Nigeria we follow my son as he visits friends and relatives in Lagos, Oshogbo and Onitsha. When I was a young student in Nigeria, we were not allowed to speak Igbo. Following in the footsteps of the British colonial masters, schools strictly enforced an English only policy. Our teachers, in their beautifully ironed and starched Western clothes, would say, "See how clever White people are, you'll never be like them if you continue to speak in Igbo." Or sometimes they'd say, "You must speak English like the English." I often wanted to ask them if we could meet some English people so that we would learn to speak like them. We were also taught French, the language of the former colonial rulers in nearby countries. As a result, I can read and write French better than Igbo.
Thankfully, things are changing; young people are studying our languages in schools in Nigeria and learning about our cultures in higher institutions. Hopefully we are building on our past for a better tomorrow.
Finally, my purpose for setting my books in Africa ties in with building a better future: to awaken children to life and culture of other countries. My books also offer opportunities for discussions in classrooms and at home; they're informative, and are illustrated with an African sense of occasion and flair.