June 20, 2019

Thoughtful research helps ‘Africa’ dispel myths

AFRICA IS NOT A COUNTRY. Written by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove, illustrated by Anne Sibley O’Brien, The Millbrook Press, Brookfield, Conn., 2000, 40 pages, $24.90.

Thomas and his father travel over snow covered paths by pony to go to market and visit friends and relatives in the mountains of Lesotho.

In Mauritania, in her family’s tent in the Sahara desert, Fatima serves her afternoon guests tea and memorizes verses from the Koran by chanting them out loud.

In Nigeria, Chuba practices ancient dances, hoping to be selected to perform at harvest festivals, Christmas celebrations and weddings.

These and many other youngsters are the stars of “Africa Is Not A Country” by Margy Burns Knight and Mark Melnicove. A day from dawn to night is the framework for a series of lively vignettes featuring a diverse sampling of that continent’s children.

From sunrise when Arim and Efrem, ready for school, receive a blessing (“May God be with you the whole day,”) and an admonition to respect their teachers from their parents in Eritrea to night when Alba, Afi, and Koffi eagerly await a bedtime story in Togo, these beautifully illustrated scenarios provide intriguing glimpses into the varied lifestyles, traditional and modern.

In a phone chat from her Winthrop home, Knight said that “Africa Is Not A Country” took a long time from inspiration to manuscript. Following the publication of her first book, “Talking Walls,” she became frustrated by the myths and stereotypes still circulating about Africa and many people’s tendency to view this varied and dynamic continent made up of 53 countries as a homogeneous national entity. She also was aware that much written about Africa tended to be about academic topics such as politics and economics and that many images presented by the media were negative.

“I wanted them [children and families] to be aware of the humanity of these people [African children],” Knight said. “I want them to realize that they have daily lives. Maybe they’re not a lot like ours. But they get up in the morning and go about their day. In the evening, like us, they get ready to go to bed.”

Knight became immersed in research. She talked to many people, hosting two in her own home, studied books, magazines and articles, and surfed the Web. “It took three years to find the information and create the right balances. None of us were from that continent. We were very careful.”

This research was a real learning experience for Knight, one that she loved.

“I didn’t know most of the information before,” she said. “A lot surprised me. I enjoy telling kids that I had no idea that there are 17 varieties of bananas in Tanzania.”

Knight advises people desiring more global awareness to read good books and to get out and meet people from other countries.

“There is so much talk about how white Maine is. But if you live near a university or city the resources are there,” she said.

Knight doesn’t want her book described as “multicultural,” which she sees as a trendy term that only implies a fad that will pass. Rather, she prefers to think of books such as hers as windows opening on another world.

Parents, teachers, librarians, open up that window and let the sun shine in!

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