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Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale
Moriarty, Kathleen; Amir, Amin (illus.) Wiil Waal: A Somali Folktale. St. Paul, MN: Minnesota Humanities Commission, 2007. $15.95, ISBN 978-1-931016-16-2.

Note: When wise Somali leader Wiil Waal asks the men in his province to bring him the part of a sheep that best symbolizes "what can divide men or unite them as one," most present him with prime cuts of meat. But one very poor man's daughter has a different idea. (CABA Honor)


This new children's book is another jewel in the series of bilingual (English-Somali) folktales produced by the Minnesota Humanities Center. It is no wonder that it was named a 2008 Honor Book for Young Children by the Children's Africana Book Awards Committee, for it is excellent in a number of ways. To begin with, the format is such as to allow the skills of the famous Somali illustrator and cartoonist Amin Amir to shine. Extending over two pages at a time, his rural Somali landscapes show low hills, sparse vegetation in shades of green and brown, dome-shaped nomadic collapsible houses, the typical black-headed Somali sheep, the little goats minded by little boys dressed in their small knee-length loin cloths, old men with beards and walking sticks, camels, and so forth. These landscapes are rendered in the plain, realistic (and somewhat romanticized) style that was typical of the murals that adorned Somali restaurants, shops, and theater in the 1960s and 1970s and will resonate with Somali parents and grand-parents. Children too will love the illustrations from the opening one, in which a girl presses a baby-goat to her chest, to the last one, in which the two main characters of the story, side by side, serenely look out over the land.

This sparse rural setting is the setting for the story of a Somali sultan testing the intelligence and ingenuity of his people. In this tale it is not a wise old man who comes up with the correct answer to the sultan's riddle (what is the part of the sheep that brings people together but also causes them to fight?) but a young woman.

Somali tales and traditional wisdom often emphasize intelligence as a crucial characteristic of a proper, highly sought after, young woman, ranking intelligence as high as competence, good character and upbringing, beauty, and health. Indeed, in reward of her intelligence, the young woman of this folktale becomes the sultan's wife.

Somali tales do not underestimate the intelligence of children and do not moralize in an over-explicit, insipid way. They are both simple and, in their wit and wisdom, philosophical and wise, and thus often truly of interesting to young and old. In her English retelling, Kathleen Moriarty has found a perfect tone a story fully accessible to children but undoubtedly appealing to parents as well. With a story-line emphasizing human commonalities, and a matter-of-fact African context that is different enough to inspire children, this story will inspire both girls and boys, as the sultan's wit is matched by that of the young woman.

Moriarty is an excellent story-teller and it is an asset of the book that the English text is her retelling of the Somali tale. However, it surprised me that the Somali text is a translation of her English rendition and not a Somali (re-)telling of the story. The translator, generally, does an excellent job, even though there are many spelling mistakes (aabbe with one `b,' buuggan with one with one 'g' a sentence fragment, and so forth). However, for readers interested in the Somali language, even a good and somewhat free translation is no substitute for the artistry and linguistic skill of a Somali story-teller, with his or her particular choices of words, emphases, contextualization, articulation of the punch-line, and so forth.

One may ask whether the primacy of the English retelling has any consequences for the content of the story. There is, to the mind of this reviewer, at least one occasion on which the English text appears to diverge somewhat from the Somali tale. When the sultan discovers who solved his riddle, he says: I have found my `wise man' - in this young girl. May she some day rule the land. The English text is ambiguous here, as it can be taken to mean that the young woman will one day become the ruler or sultan. In reality, however, her reward is that she will become the sultan's wife an outcome that, thanks to the illustrator, nevertheless gets across.

This is a beautiful and inspiring book for young children. However, to make a bilingual tale like this one as significant an artistic and educational achievement in Somali as it already is in English, the Minnesota Humanities Center might consider going back to the formula of the two earlier books in this series and have a Somali story-teller retell the story in Somali just as the English one retells it in English. Highly recommended.

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Rating: HR Grade: P (Ages 5-8) Type: Book

Reviewed by: Lidwien Kapteijns, Wellesley College

Subject: Somali folktale / Folklore / East Africa / CABA Honor