The Herd Boy
South Africa / Fiction
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers
While caring for his grandfather's sheep and goats on the grasslands of South Africa, young Malusi dreams of everything from owning his own dog to becoming president.
In The Herd Boy, Niki Daly adds another picture book depicting everyday South African life to his collection. This story, given a rural Transkei setting in what is now the Eastern Cape Province, follows the routines of a young Xhosa boy who tends his grandfather’s sheep and goats. Malusi–which means “shepherd” in the Xhosa language–awakes at sunrise, eats a breakfast of mielie pap (maize porridge), and sets off for the grazing slopes with the herd. There he joins with his friend, also a shepherd, and his dog, Koko. To pass the time, these boys play games, entertain themselves with watching insects, eat the lunch brought to them by Malusi’s older sister, and dream about what they will become when they grow up. However, the boys also must keep watch that the animals don’t stray into the donga (ravine) or come to harm by the ever-lurking baboons. Although one old baboon does injure a lamb, Malusi manages, with Kokos help to rescue the lamb and force the baboon to retreat. Carrying the lamb home, Malusi and Lungisa meet a shiny new car with an elderly passenger in the back seat. The car stops to allow the distinguished gentleman to greet the boys and tell them that he was a shepherd like them when he was a boy. Upon learning that Malusi wants to become president, the old man observes that ”a boy who looks after his herd will make a very fine leader.” That night, Malusi dreams of standing in front of the Union Building in Pretoria (the capital city that seats the executive branch of the South African government) before a crowd of fellow citizens hailing President Malusi.
This theme–that anyone who demonstrates responsibility, even a humble herd boy, can aspire to be a leader in the new South Africa–is reinforced by the fact that the country’s first Black president, Nelson Mandela, was a shepherd boy himself. Indeed, the chance encounter between Malusi and the old man in the car (who strongly resembles Mandela–with his trademark presidential shirt–and clearly is a dignitary) can symbolize the meeting of Mandela as a young boy and as the president (according to a personal communication from the author). South Africa’s earlier history when Mandela was a boy who may not have been able to aspire to much more than a life in his Transkei homeland is thus brought together with its more recent history since the beginning of multiracial democracy two decades ago. Now, it is no longer an unimaginable dream for anyone to reach the nation’s highest office, and according to the author’s note, even the life circumstances of a herd boy might help “prepare him to become the shepherd of a nation.”
Another noteworthy attribute of this title is the illustration’s depiction of the South African setting by someone who is intimately acquainted with the veldt (grassland) countryside. The outside cover scene immediately captures the terrain with its greenish brown colors and bright splashes of orange-red vegetation and further enhanced by the title’s lettering style subtly incorporating traditional Xhosa designs. The title page and several following illustrations provide a long view of the farm homestead with neat animal kraals (enclosures) and a mixture of traditional Xhosa rondavels (round dwellings) and rural European-style farmhouse. Nearly all the interior illustrations are three quarter double-page spreads, with white text strips enhanced with small sepia-toned vignette drawings, such as the mother stirring a pot over a fire. The same earth tone colors with spare bright accent colors characterize the large illustrations as on the cover.
Many details in the story and illustrations complement the South African setting: the baby asleep in a wrap on Mama’s back; umvobo eaten with fingers for lunch; designs on clothing; the farmyard scene with a dog, chickens, and a red bike; wildlife identified as a puffadder snake, baboon troop, eagle, dung beetles, and termites; references to South Africa’s Bafana Bafana football (soccer) team and the famous boxer Baby Jake Matlala; the car’s driver seated on the right side; women carrying vessels on their heads; and the final scene of a multi-ethnic crowd of people waving colorful South African flags. A glossary defines the isiXhosa, Afrikaans, German, and Dutch terms used in text, a mixture commonly share by many South African ethnic groups.
Daly, who is well-known internationally for his ground-breaking title Songololo (1985; the first picture book published in South Africa depicting a Black child protagonist) and the Jamela series, recognizes that his status as an outsider to the Xhosa culture necessitated careful his research and then seeking advice from experts such as Basil Mills from the National Museum of English Language, who conducts field work in the Transkei, where this story is set (personal communication and book credits).With the symbolic merging of Mandela’s boyhood era in a meeting of Malusi and someone who looks like Mandela when he was president in the 1990s, Daly adapted aspects of the old way of life with modern living (personal communication) and allowed himself some literary license with clothing details, such as the boys’ wearing traditional red blankets as cloaks instead of more contemporary jackets and sweaters.
This title contrasts with the majority of Daly’s realistic fiction work which uses urban settings, except for Once Upon a Time (2003) with its rural Little Karoo location farther west. It can be compared with Kathryn Cave’s One Child, One Seed: A South African Counting Book (2002) with GisèleWulfsohn’s photographs in a northeastern South African setting. In a country that is increasingly urban, titles such as these help to provide a balanced perspective.
Published in Africa Access Review (November 13, 2012)
Copyright 2012 Africa Access
Reviewed by: Barbara A. Lehman (The Ohio State University, Mansfield)