Although the value of collaborative play to overcome conflict is highlighted throughout the book, The Banana-Leaf Ball may reinforce the stereotype of Africa as overwhelmed by unexplained warfare and riddled with refugee camps.
The story begins when the protagonist, Deo Rukundo, suddenly has to flee his family home “one dark night” and loses his family in the forest until a fisherman finds him, “just skin and bones,” and brings him to Lukole, a refugee camp in northwest Tanzania. While at the camp alone without his family, Deo struggles to avoid conflict with other boys who fight and steal to survive during periods of food and resource scarcity. Remembering his pre-war love of soccer, he decides to make a soccer ball out of banana leaves and twine, like he used to when he was with his family. However, one of the leaders of the boy gang, Remy, bullies him and steals his twine.
Later, a young coach arrives at the camp with a real soccer ball and encourages Deo and the other young boys to play. Although Deo is made captain of the team, Remy is also put on his team. This seems like a problem at first, but as they play together, they start to work together and appreciate each other’s skills and the importance of teamwork. After their team wins the game, Remy congratulates Deo and shares how he used to play soccer with his older brothers who died in the war. With this moment of vulnerability, the two boys become fast friends and Deo teaches Remy how to make banana-leaf balls for practice.
The story ends on a positive note, explaining that with soccer, the children of the Lukole refugee camp learned to work together and “…no one feels so alone anymore.” Eventually, the camp closes and Deo is reunited with his family and eventually becomes a soccer coach to also foster trust and play among children in local schools.
Despite the values of teamwork and empathy embedded in the narrative, the story neglects to contribute positively to the reader’s understanding of Africa or African cultures. The reasoning behind the war is never explained nor are any unique cultural, historical, or social details, except for use of Kirundi in dialogue, mentioned. Moreover, the use of words and phrases like “huts” and “men with torches and machetes exploded out of the dark” perpetuates the notion of Africa as backward and dangerous. Even though the author names the country where the refugee camp is located, the war-torn home country of Deo (Burundi) is not noted in the text of the story itself. While a reader might come away with an interest in soccer or sports after reading The Banana-Leaf Ball, they will have no representative conception of life in Africa, let alone Burundi or Tanzania. For children with already limited knowledge of African diversity, this book fails to undermine stereotypes or encourage cross-cultural understanding.
Reviewed by Breeanna Elliott, M.A. Boston University
Published in Africa Access Review (February 3, 2018)
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