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The dreamer

Nigerian artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy survived civil war and serious illness to become the first African person to paint the Queen. Here is a story about the artist's childhood for children to read, adapted from the book Chinwe Roy - Artist by Verna Wilkins

ven as a five-year-old girl in primary school, Chinwe didn't like maths. She wanted to draw and paint pictures. "You should try and work a bit harder. Especially with your maths. Do try," her parents pleaded.

"Work harder, or else!" warned her class teacher. So, in maths lessons, Chinwe put her head down and worked furiously, glancing up at the teacher every minute or two.

Then, one day, his eyes narrowed and he bellowed, "Come here Chinwe. Immediately. Bring your work with you." Chinwe froze.

The teacher strode over to her desk. "What's this?" he shouted, staring at a crazy cartoon of his own head, huge on a shrunken body.

Chinwe ducked under his outstretched arm. She escaped, with the picture, into the hot mid-morning sun, and galloped the full mile home.

"What's wrong?" her worried mother called to her as she ran into the house.

"The teacher wants to punish me. I couldn't do my maths."

"He should help you. Not punish you. I'll have a word with him. But, what's that?" Her mother took one look at the picture and her eyes blazed.

Chinwe flew out of the house and ran all the way back to school. For the entire hour of her next maths lesson, the teacher made her stand on top of her desk. Her humiliation was complete.

Chinwe lost heart and worked her way to the bottom of her class.

At the age of eight, she moved into a new class. She scampered into the room ahead of everyone and leapt into a seat near a large window. From there, she gazed at street life.

"From my classroom window, I could see sunlight striking the trees. The leaves shone like glass and the stems cast long, dark shadows on the ground.

"I could see women going to work and to the market in their brightly coloured dresses and head-ties. Buses, trucks and handcarts roared by. This was far more interesting than what was happening inside the classroom, but the teachers called me a dreamer and moved me away from the window. I was sad."

All Chinwe could do was to sketch what was around her. "I was surrounded by art. It was in the spectacular African landscape. It was in the colourful robes that we wore. It was in the festivals and the masquerades. In the elaborate dress for funeral ceremonies. In the fantastic carving on the door to my grandfather's house. So I drew."

One day a kind teacher stopped her. "You're a bright girl. Why won't you do your school work?"

"I want to draw and paint and nobody teaches that," replied Chinwe.

"And where do you think drawing and painting will get you, my girl? You need mathematics and English, science and history to succeed in life. Not art."

Many years later, in the year 2000, far beyond her early dreams, and thousands of kilometres away from her African classroom, Chinwe was chosen to do a portrait of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, the most prestigious job in the world of portrait painting.

Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy was the first black person ever to paint the Queen.

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