All about Africa

10th August 2007 at 01:00
Africa is a vast land and a vast subject. Jo Klaces recommends fiction that helps teachers get messages across


By Berlie Doherty

Andersen Press pound;10.99


By Julia Golding

Egmont Children's Books pound;6.99

Over a Thousand Hills I Walk With You

By Hanna Jansen

Translated from the German by Elizabeth D. Crawford

Andersen Press pound;6.99

Burn My Heart

By Beverley Naidoo

Puffin pound;5.99

The Door of No Return

By Sarah Mussi

Hodder Children's Books pound;5.99

What important and necessary books these are. I suspect that I am not the only teacher in the UK who has lumped the nations of Africa into one entity in my head and sometimes, lamentably, into pupils' heads too. These novels counteract that homogenisation process, giving the reader glimpses of aspects of life in some of the wide range of countries in this huge continent.

In Abela, two lives are running in parallel: 13-year-old Rosa's in Sheffield and that of Abela (nine, she thinks) in Tanzania. Except that Abela's life is unspeakably hard, as her father, mother and baby sister die of HIVAids and she is used as a pawn in her uncle's game (he is trying to get a visa to live in Britain). So she ends up in this country without anyone to care for her.

Meanwhile Rosa is happy in her single-parent family until her mum says she wants to adopt a child from Africa: more specifically, Tanzania.

The orders of concerns for each child are different, but neither is diminished by the comparison. Despite the conclusion feeling inevitable, there are enough obstacles hurled in the way to keep the tension alive to the very last page of this humane, emotionally honest and gripping story.

Julia Golding's Ringmaster is an adventure thriller set in Nairobi, Kenya, where 14-year-old Darcie lives a privileged life as the daughter of a British High Commission Consul and his wife, who disappears abroad for long periods to feed her severe shopping habit.

Nothing is quite as it seems: Darcie's world explodes as her father is abducted and she is hired by British Intelligence to help find him. This is a book that should appeal to both boys and girls and there is a varied cast of characters from many ethnic and class backgrounds, plus action, gadgets, guns and roses all rattling along together at breakneck pace.

Darcie is a likeable heroine and we should stand by to welcome many more of her adventures.

In bleak contrast, Over a Thousand Hills I Walk with You tells the true story of Jeanne, an eight-year-old Tutsi girl who survived the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

Alone, all her family murdered, some in front of her, the book trails her through the country with a small band of other youthful survivors.

The unspeakable horror of the whole period is grimly realised, as far as it ever can be; readers can understand the blind terror and puzzlement of those who face the random brutality of hatred-filled people carrying machetes in their hands.

There can be no doubt that this is an essential document for our times and, as you might expect, it is not an easy read. It probably isn't class reader material, though extracts would make a basis for some great discussion, but this book should be on every school library shelf and every effort made to direct pupils to it.

Similarly, they should be encouraged to pick up Beverley Naidoo's quiet and dignified novel, Burn my Heart. It tells the story of two boys coming of age in Kenya during the period of the Mau Mau uprising in the early 1950s. Mathew is 11, the indulged son of rich white farmers; Mugo is the 13-year-old son of a black farm labourer. Their friendship is compromised by their lack of social equality and Mathew's inability to properly empathise with Mugo's position. The whispering menace of the Mau Mau rebels is deftly set against the bluster of the white farmers, understandably determined to hold on to their land, but unwilling to see the whirlwind that their uncompromising defence of privilege and status brings.

There is dignity to be found on both sides, but there can be no doubting where Naidoo's sympathies lie. The personal becomes political, the family stories become intertwined with the beginning of a most turbulent and terrifying era.

Beside disappointment, fear and the quiet critique of imperialism, is the warmth, messiness and magical inexplicability of human relationships; this is a wonderful book, one for mature teens who are curious about the world.

I love The Door of no Return, which takes us from urban Britain to the slave ports of Ghana without much pause for breath. The book wraps serious themes, particularly about reparations for the crime of slavery, in a rollicking good mystery story, led off by the streetwise orphan hero, 16-year-old Zac Baxter.

The book borrows its title from the name of the door in the slave castles and fortresses of Africa, which is, as the writer says, "hugely symbolic *

Jo Klaces teaches English in Birmingham

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