African Children Rarely See Themselves at All

Representation and Its Wonders

When I was a child, we had a very very specific time to watch T.V. As a matter of fact, our home had a fancy lock for the television set. The wooden cupboard had a special slot for the television and a lock. We had to prove that we had finished our homework, reading, and napping before we could watch the wonders of the world. Parenting in the early two-thousands can honestly be a successful comedy show.

Of course, five minutes to five-thirty, we would all think that my uncle was turning into a turtle on his way to the fancy cupboard. No one could walk slower than he seemed to be walking then. We would all find our seats on the large carpet and wait for RTV to grace our evening with old cartoons. One day, my uncle probably spent two hours walking from his bedroom to the T.V., which is why this cartoon was caught a few minutes past its beginning. I remember sitting next to my sister and brother as we looked silently, confused as to how to react to this cartoon. There was a hut – a real African hut – on T.V. What? Then, the strangest thing happened: an old black man with a large white beard said some stuff with an accent like Mamadou or Souke. I instinctively assumed that this was going to be the most boring and awkward cartoon. Why? Because I had never ever seen a cartoon with African – or black – characters.

As a grown-up, I now understand my reaction. It was strange to see black cartoon characters because I was convinced that only white characters were fun, smart, and worth watching. We reluctantly watched what became my favourite African animated film: “Kirikou et la sorcière.” The days, months, and years that followed, we sang the theme songs everywhere we went. It brought us together as Africans. It changed the way I looked at huts. It made me proud because people who looked like me made it on T.V.

And then silence.

I am not trying to diss the wonderful “Samba et Leuk.” Those were pretty amazing as well. But we have to start the conversation around the scarcity of high-quality children content for Africa by Africans. Our formative years shape our perception of the people we will later admire, respect, and aspire to look like. Every time I thought of a wedding as a child, my imaginary characters were white. Same as the dolls I so lovingly took care of. My imagination channelled characters that would never look like me yet they took centre stage in my wildest dreams. Let me dare call it the colonialism of the mind. This is where our young children still connect their pride and biggest achievement to “studying in America” or having a heavily Westernized accent. How heart-wrenching.

I recently released my very first children book in an attempt to shake that table a bit. This is a drop in the ocean but a very big one nonetheless. Releasing “Ysolde and Her Magical Shoes” was a journey in itself but it was interesting to see black children react the same way I did to “Kirikou et la sorcière.”

“Where are her straight blonde hair and blue eyes?” they searched almost convinced that someone who didn’t have a lighter shade and longer hair didn’t deserve to be a hero in a book. Maybe a sidekick but not the hero. I read my story to eighty African children who curiously explored with me the possibility of their own greatness.

Releasing Ysolde’s story was more than just having fun –  although it was a ton of fun. It was backed by the strong belief that when African children see themselves as heroes, they tend to act like they are. And when they see themselves as sidekicks (if ever), they act like they are. Sadder than that, however, African children rarely see themselves at all.

It took about six months to finish this very short story. I have had an amazing team supporting me and sharing the most honest feedback to ensure that our little girls and boys are considered. And one thing we agreed to was the higher the quality, the more impact it will have on the reader. This includes parents too, by the way.

High-quality African children books shouldn’t be a luxury. They should be as numerous as they come.

Ysolde has now found a home in more than ten countries in and out of Africa, and one thing I noticed – this came as a total surprise – was how easily children from Western countries get excited to see black children in books. The sense of equality and sameness cultivated through stories will help them see others from a unified lens; a lens that their parents never got to wear, which led to the chaos and inequalities we see all around us today.

The bottom line is Africa has a beautiful story to tell – not just to news organisations or through Facebook – and a challenge to create an imaginary world in which children are safe to dream.

Post-script: Feel free to get yourself a copy of “Ysolde and Her Magical Shoes” at major local bookstores in Kigali. I owe people money. 🙂

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