Idia of the Benin Kingdom
Ekiuwa Aire’s picture book imagines the early life of Idia, a historical figure in the Benin Kingdom who grew up to become the first Queen Mother or Iyoba of Benin (in present-day Nigeria). Aire was inspired to write the book after she moved from Benin City to Canada and realized the dearth of resources to introduce African history to her young children. She hoped the life of Idia would help her kids (and others) develop an appreciation for African history and value the wisdom and pride that come from the knowledge. Unable to find a company willing to publish the book, Aire began her own publishing company. This first publication is outstanding, a book that libraries and families will want to add to their collections.
Aire imbues the character Idia with curiosity, confidence, and determination. She effectively uses dream sequences to mirror the historical reality of Idia’s life. The story opens with a sleeping young Idia dreaming of a woman warrior on a battleground. The dream puzzles her. Like other young girls in the kingdom, Idia focuses her energy on dancing. She shines as she shows off her steps at the town’s annual Igue festival. Still the dream of the woman warrior stays in her mind. She asks her father, a village elder and warrior. “Tell me, what is it like to be a warrior?” She challenges her father’s idea that only men can be soldiers and persuades him to teach her to handle weapons, devise battle plans, and deal with an enemy. The idea of becoming a warrior stays with Idia as she grows into a young woman. In another dream, she is a queen and her young son, a king whom she must protect. The story ends with Idia on the threshold of adulthood, respectful of family and societal norms but ready to chart her own future.
With great attention to detail, illustrator Alina Shabelnyk recreates the 16th century Benin Kingdom. She pays particular attention to the authentic dress of Benin — girls dress in white wrappers, women wear head ties and gold jewelry, and soldiers wear the distinctive red cone-shaped hats of Benin. She is equally adept at conveying the mincing steps of little girls dancing and the energy of the battlefield.
In the author’s note, Aire provides information on the facts of Idia’s life, noting her innovations in dance and her successful plan for the famous Idah Battle of 1515 (she dressed as a man and marched alongside her son). After her death, Idia son’s Oba Esigie memorialized his mother with works of art that are famous the world over and coveted by museums.
Reviewed by Bayo Omolola, Ph.D.
Published in Africa Access Review (December 2, 2021)
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