This book is based on a true story about a boy named Muthini. Muthini lives with his grandmother and eight cousins in one of the rural villages in eastern Kenya. Muthini has a physical disability, which makes both adults and children treat him differently (e.g. insults and teasing). As a result of poverty and old age, his grandmother is unable to support him and she places him in an orphanage. However, before Muthini can be accepted in this orphanage, he has to change his name from Muthini, which means suffering, to Baraka, which means blessings.
This book illustrates the unconditional love of a grandmother for her grandchildren despite her old age and financial constraints. It also shows the inner strength of a disabled child, who does not let his physical disability defeat him, although his fellow children and adults scorn him. Muthini is one of the top students in his school and a good soccer player. However, his name change from Muthini (suffering) to Baraka (blessings) before he could be accepted at the orphanage is disturbing, given the 19th century missionaries’ history in Africa where Africans had to change their names to be “civilized” or “saved” from their “barbaric” ways. In addition, naming is intentional and symbolic in most Africa communities and usually it has nothing to do with the child, but the surrounding circumstances at birth. Therefore, this boy’s name change is problematic. Also, the scorning that Muthini is getting from the community is the opposite of African values where it takes a whole village to raise a child. Why would this child be treated differently because of his physical disability? Generally in Africa, people empathize with the physically disabled, and do not mock them
The use of authentic cultural names and fabulous illustrations are commendable but the book perpetuates stereotyped Africa that is poor, hungry, and suffering. Also, the illustration of flying beings at night may be interpreted as wizards, again propagating a stereotype, that of witchcraft in Africa. The children’s drawings of wildlife (at home and in school) perpetuate the myth that Africa is a jungle full of big game animals. Finally, the author’s note includes the terms “tribe” and “tribal” both of which are misleading in the American context. Children should read this book with books which give a more balanced view of Africa.
Reviewed by:Esther Mukewa Lisanza, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Published in Africa Access Review (June 15, 2014)
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