Growing up in Africa

7th July 1995 at 01:00
THE AFRICAN MASK by Janet E Rupert Clarion Books (distributed by Cassell) Pounds 9.99 - 0 395 67295 3 SONG OF BE by Lesley Beake Hamish Hamilton Pounds 8.99 - 0241 13525 7 Age range: 11 - 15

Each of these novels uses the story of an adolescent girl to convey the essence of an African society, one contemporary, one historical. Neither is "written from within", but Lesley Beake spent time with the San people of Namibia, and Janet Rupert drew on the help of Yoruba authorities as well as her academic study of West African history, when writing The African Mask, her first novel.

In setting the story of Layo in the remote, quasi-mythical Yoruba past, she faces the problems of presenting lively characters without making them anachronistic, and of making their social background coherent without obtrusive "anthropologising". She mostly succeeds, but readers may find that American usage highlights the fact that it is difficult not to "read back" our own responses on to people who left no written record. In her Afterword she notes that Yoruba history includes marked discontinuities, and she uses the people's ability to "re-vision" their past, in creating her taut narrative of a girl on the brink of adulthood.

Part of the story is set in Ife, the ancient centre of Yoruba civilization, and its values - co-operation in productive work, and regard for the contribution of all generations - are clearly established. Women's lives encompass family responsibilites, command of craft skills, and community leadership, and older women enjoy high esteem. Many details, such as an account of the divination process, subtly adjusted to group and individual needs, carry conviction.

A book that begins, "I have just killed myself" may be expected to offer challenges as well as surprises. In Song of Be, Be is a Ju'hoan Bushman girl (Lesley Beake explains her preference for this term) who comes with her mother, Aia, to a farm, Ontevrede, in the Gobabis district of Namibia, shortly after Independence in 1990. Her grandfather has worked for years for Mr Coetzee ("Kleinbaas"), and all three members of the family are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Be's dealings with Mr Coetzee's disturbed wife, Min, told from her own point of view, show, in an unforced way, how the San suffer to an extreme degree the misrepresentation of non-white people in Southern Africa. This painful material is offset by Be's warm and lyrical portrayal of her own culture (especially the security of being loved by many "mothers"), and by her eventual rescue.

Lesley Beake writes well, for slightly older readers, and teachers using her book might welcome some contextual help, for example Marjorie Shostak's Nisa, the life and words of a !Kung woman (1982). She gives the address of the Nyae Nyae Farmers' Co-operative who helped her (the Ju'hoan are no longer exclusively hunter-gatherers). Schools might like to investigate the possibility of making contact. They would need to offer suitable resources in exchange for information, and to match Lesley Beake's evident respect for people whose lives are still precarious.

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