Made in South Africa

16th May 1997 at 01:00
Warriors, Warthogs and Wisdom: Growing Up In Africa. By Lyall Watson. Illustrated by Keith West. Kingfisher Pounds 12.99

Lyall Watson is a South African-born scientist whose first book for children celebrates the African roots which, as he points out, are the roots of all humanity.

He begins by explaining how Africa's history goes back to the makers of the stone tools he was so thrilled to find in the bush, and describing his sense of connection with them. They form the background of stories about life on his family's sisal farm, near the border with Swaziland and Mozambique, shared with three "elders" - his grandparents, Ouma and Oupa, and Jabula, a Zulu clan chief who had long ago come to work for them. In different ways, they teach him about his environment, where cultures mix in defiance of the remote and incomprehensible dictates of apartheid.

Oupa says little, but enjoys sharing a cigar with his favourite goat, and loves the wild creatures, from giraffes to springboks, that haunt the farm he keeps free of cats and dogs in order to attract them. Watson is unsentimental about Oupa's death and the unusual manner in which he joins the ancestors, but we may detect his influence on a budding naturalist.

Ouma is more flamboyantly eccentric, saving an ailing stork, seeing off officialdom with creative gusto, and using her influence to enable her grandson to take part in a Zulu boys' initiation ceremony.

Jabula teaches Watson Zulu etiquette, and all kinds of bush lore and custom, from roasting caterpillars to smoking out the villain responsible for the death of Kaiser, the goat. He uses all the power and terrifying energy at his disposal to rout a bunch of sinister men who set upon the little boy on his way home from school, and plays an important part in the story of Hoover, the warthog of the title.

Hoover is rescued as a piglet from hyenas, and later from poachers, one of whom comes to a terrible end, impaled on an antelope's horn. That incident is told quite unflinchingly and, while the book seems to be pitched at readers aged from about seven to nine, it may sometimes call for explanation by an adult.

Keith West's monochrome illustrations are very delicate, but it seems a pity that the opportunities for colour offered by the text have been lost. The book's strength is the warmth with which the author recalls his rich experiences.

* Primary children's books, Page 14

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