Walking for Water
Walking for Water tells the story of Victor and his twin sister, Linesi, who live in a village in Malawi. The children have turned 8 years old, and Linesi must now begin helping the women and older girls to fetch water each day from the river, instead of going to school with her brother. Victor misses his sister, and feels it is unfair that she has to spend her days carrying water, while he is walking to school with their friends and learning in the classroom. Victor devises a plan, which he shares with his mother and sister, for he and Linesi to take turns going to school and carrying water on alternate days.
Walking for Water is part of the Citizen Kid series by Kids Can Press. This series is designed for western, English speaking readers ages 8-12, and is intended to inspire children with stories of young people making a difference in their local communities. A 2008 book from this series, One Hen, was a CABA Award Winner. The author of Walking for Water is Susan Hughes, a Toronto-based children’s book author and freelance editor.
Walking for Water has numerous strengths, as well as some elements of concern. Hughes is an experienced children’s book author, and presents the story in a clear and accessible way for young readers. Miles’ illustrations are colorful and cheerful. Chichewa words and phrases are woven adeptly into the story. For example, Victor and Linesi’s mother tells them “Ndimakukondani!” as they run out the door in the morning. Context cues in the story, and a helpful glossary, let us know it means “I love you!”
Another strength is the engaging portrayal of friendships between the children in the village, as well as of other relationships in the community. The story includes elements of daily life that are very familiar to children anywhere: the teacher reads a story to the children using funny voices; the children gather at the kachere tree to play; and Victor is embarrassed by his mother calling out “I love you.” The characters in the story are relatable and multi-dimensional.
However, some concerns arise over the ethnocentric perspective in the story. The author is not African and does not seem to have any first-hand experience in Malawi. In reviewing this book, the book was shared with several young reviewers of elementary through high school age, who read the story and provided their observations. The young readers responded positively to the theme of gender equality in the story, and enjoyed the story overall. However, they also noticed right away that all the children in the story are barefoot, even in the classroom. This observation highlights the subtle ways that the author invokes stereotypes about Africa.
Another example of this type of stereotyping is the author’s portrayal of the children in the story as only 8 years old, suggesting that it is the norm for girls of this age to leave school to begin carrying water. However, the Malawi Demographic and Health Survey (2015-16) indicates that 94% of girls ages 6-13 in Malawi are attending school. This is higher than the percentage of boys in Malawi in this age group (93%) who are attending school. The real-life boy that the character of Victor is based on was aged 13, but the author changes his age to 8. This creates a perception in the reader’s mind of a “backward” country in which very young children are forced to work rather than attending school.
Another concern relates to the way the story itself undermines the theme of the book. The theme of gender equality is discussed in detail. Victor’s actions catch on, and soon other boys in the village follow suit and begin taking turns carrying water. There is greater gender equity in the village since many girls are now able to go to school and the boys share the load of carrying water. Victor is written as the “hero” of the story. The women and girls are portrayed as lacking agency – the boy is the one who could come up with a plan and bring about change. This sends a subtle message that boys are the agents of change, which undermines the stated theme of gender equality.
In all, Walking for Water is an enjoyable story, but it does present some problematic stereotypes. If used in the classroom, it would be important to provide context and discussion around these issues.
Reviewed by Stacey Sewall, UNC African Studies Center
Published in Africa Access Review (November 8, 2021)
Copyright 2021 Africa Access