Africa Amazing Africa: Country by Country
Nigerian-born Atinuke is the author of the popular Anna Hibiscus and No. 1 Car Spotter series of children’s books. Africa, Amazing Africa, her first non-fiction title, is a broad look at the history, geography and culture of 55 African countries. Intended to engage young readers, the publisher describes the book as “a celebration scaled to dazzle and delight…and an essential classroom and social studies resource.” Unfortunately this collection is uneven and often stereotypical.
It is certainly a challenge to take on an entire continent and provide important and interesting information on each country in 80 pages. Atinuke seems to understand the enormity of the task she has set for herself. She asks the reader to forgive mistakes, as this is a “tiny glimpse into this most amazing continent.” However, her attempt to keep every entry different results in an uneven and sometimes stereotypical collection of facts. Obscure tidbits are highlighted while more important information is relegated to brief bullets. In many entries, the country text begins with animals, in others, the main text includes only information about animals.
A number of entries are particularly concerning. Apartheid in South Africa is described as “once there was a terrible conflict.” The attempt to use simple language so that children can understand apartheid results in a tone that implies the equality of a two-sided conflict. Swaziland, named Eswatini since 2018, is described as having traditions that have not changed in 100 years and the Madagascar page is all about animals. For Sudan, the history of Nubian rulers and the significance of the Blue and White Nile Rivers are included as bullets, while camel burps and farts are in the main text. The text on Nigeria, the author’s birthplace, is about traffic in Lagos, with more important information relegated to bullets. The Democratic Republic of Congo is described as “lucky” because of the mining of coltan (used in mobile phones). Ignored is the use of child labor to produce coltan. The Republic of Congo entry highlights the myth of a scary monster then asks readers which Congo capital city is the scary one. The Sierra Leone entry notes the contrast of rich and poor and the export of diamonds, accompanied by an illustration of children picking through trash. Difficult subjects are mostly avoided (e.g. Rwanda genocide) yet in a bullet there is a brutal description of current slavery in Mauritania.
There are two major errors. Liberia and Ethiopia are each stated as the only country not colonized by Europeans. Neither was colonized. Centuries of trade and travel across the Sahara are ignored when the text states that few North Africans crossed the desert to West Africa before airplanes. Later the author notes the significance of oases on trade routes.
Mix of Facts and Stereotypes
Other entries are a mix of factual information riddled with long-standing stereotypes. The West Africa introduction is diverse in its coverage of geography and culture, but emphasizes the loss of elephants in Ivory Coast/Cote d’Ivoire instead of highlighting cocoa, industries or cities. The Cameroon entry highlights students in a classroom, a common sight in every African country, followed by the statement that children are “creeping past wild animals” on their way to school. Even the Egypt page, which highlights tourism and urban life, includes crocodiles. The text on the Zimbabwe page mentions the “ancient ruined city of Great Zimbabwe,” but the illustration highlights “balancing rocks” in Matobo Park.
There are two full pages, one on African Religion and the other on African Hairstyles. The page on religion provides important information about the antiquity of Christianity and Islam in Africa and notes the presence of ancient churches, mosques, and synagogues but the illustrations highlight “African” masks disconnected from religious meaning. The page, African Hairstyles, includes the author’s opinion about African hair, “It can get into impossible tangles.”
A Good Balance
There are entries that include a good balance of culture, history or economics. Readers learn that Lesotho’s climate and geography enable the production of hydroelectric power that the country sells to its neighbor South Africa. The Uganda entry balances information on typical urban and rural scenes by focusing on local transportation. The Mali entry includes climate, customs and important historical information. The North African entries (especially Morocco, Western Sahara, and Tunisia, are the most diverse, deftly mixing sports, markets, geography, religion and history.
The illustrations are often problematic. The drawings of people’s faces appear as indistinct smudges unlike the endearing faces of the children and adults in Atinuke’s the other books. The two-page Table of Contents, has a nice mix of people and urban and rural scenes and maps are included at the beginning of each regional section. Unfortunately every map of sub-Saharan African countries is illustrated with animals, again reinforcing stereotypes of the continent. Only the map of countries of North Africa includes illustrations of people and buildings.
An index and additional resources (Find Out More) are included. The most useful and least stereotypical of the resources’ list are www.worldmusic.net/guide and www.binoandfino.com. The website www.africaaccessreview.org would have been a valuable resource to include.
In sum, with its reliance on animals and oddities, this volume will not be an effective resource for parents or schools.
Reviewed by Jo M. Sullivan, Ph.D., Independent Scholar.
Published in Africa Access Review (August 10, 2021)
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