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A Gift from Childhood : Memories of an African Boyhood
Diakité, Baba Wagué; Baba Wague Diakite (illus.) A Gift from Childhood : Memories of an African Boyhood. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2010. $18.95, ISBN 9780888999313 / 0888999313.

Note: The artist, ceramicist, writer, and storyteller describes his experiences growing up in a small village in Mali with his grandparents, and discusses how the memories have stayed with him his whole life.

Autobiography has been a feature of modern African literature since the start. The autobiographical format of classics such as Camara Laye's L'enfant noir (The Dark Child) helped to define some of the paradigms: the golden innocence and harmonies of the traditional society (the childhood of the narrator), the exposure to complicating and disruptive factors (the foreign/modern world), and the consequent existential angst of the narrator/protagonist, caught between those worlds, are still all features of the intellectual landscape. Baba Wague Diakite's new book continues that tradition, but alters the balance to reflect more modern (i.e. 2011, rather than ca. 1950) perspectives and concerns. It is also aimed at children, in a way that the previous classics were not. The tone and language are intended for a readership in the 5th-grade and up level (in the untechnical opinion of this reviewer). Angst is absent. The author feels no evident conflict between the worlds, but rather a defensiveness about the world of the village. The story-line is relatively simple: as a child, Diakité was sent by his parents to live in the village with his grandparents, and there he became imbued with a certain vision of traditional values and experiences. He stayed there until after his circumcision, when he was brought back to Bamako and embarked (with some difficulty) in the modern educational system; this led to his work as a teacher and painter, and then to his encounter with his American wife and a move to Oregon. His perspective is defined in the preface: "Today, Africans are left with an irretrievable gap between themselves and their pre-colonial ancestors" (p. 8). The meat of the book lies then in his portrayal of village life, which is also in many ways a tribute to his grandparents -his grandmother was an herbalist and story-teller, his grandfather a kindly respecter of all forms of life- and to a somewhat idealized notion of the village values embodied in tradition. He moves through recognizable topics: he catches catfish with his grandmother; he minds the granary; he herds village animals; he and other boys get into scrapes and are punished with chores. He undergoes circumcision as part of a small age-group, presumably around the age of 10 (the actual operation, however, takes place in a clinic, although apparently also without anesthetic - a curious compromise of old custom and new sensibilities). And he hears stories. The figures of Rabbit and Hyena are briefly evoked, but the stories that are actually retold deal more with aspects of the human world: one describes how a blacksmith comes to terms with Death, who thereafter goes invisible (pp. 38 ff.), another the resourcefulness of a farmer who tricks a genie (pp. 72 ff.). A third, more alluded to than actually retold, explains the traditional call and response that open a story, by reference to a time when stories were monopolized by a king, and the close defines the values the author sees: "Meanwhile, the people took stories back into their homes, and love and harmony into their kingdom" (p. 50). (Since the publishing house is also known as 'House of Anansi Press,' it is perhaps worth recalling that one of the best-known stories of Anansi, the trickster spider of Ghana, describes how he won the ownership of stories from the sky-god; this story of the king is a distant relative of that tale). He also readily offers proverbs and sayings, weaving a humanistic vision from threads of Malian life. The author is also the illustrator, and he combines two different styles. The book offers some twenty color plates, painted in a style that will be familiar to anyone who has seen murals in West Africa - flat expanses of color with a curious distortion of perspective and scale to present the whole picture. There are also many black and white images, some representative of human figures and moments in the story, others more suggestive of traditional designs and patterns from mud-cloth and other styles. This aspect of the book is far more syncretic; painting in this manner counts as a new technology. Certain elements are less idealized. An early chapter describes how he fell sick with malaria and was cured by his grandmother; a five-year-old cousin, however, dies and he notes that many children died that year in the village. One later figure, a musician, is deaf and almost mute because of childhood meningitis. When he returns to Bamako and tries to go to school, he cannot enroll because the school principal requires a bribe. Nor does he give a complete sense of the annual rhythms of life in a farming village: the uncertainties about when to plant, the worries about adequate rain, the concerns about the harvest, and perhaps most painfully the period known as the soudure, the time when food is scarce because the last year's crops have run out and the new ones are not yet ripe. And other elements are simplified. Here and there one gets a sense of the ethnic and social complexity of life in Mali: his mother is a Soninke, one of the stories deals with a Bambara (more usually Bamana) named Coulibaly who becomes - against precedent and tradition - a blacksmith; his grandmother gives him an explanation of how the family, of Fulani origin, came into the Wassulu in the time associated with Samori Touré at the end of the 19th century. This is, in part, a necessity; the book cannot cover all the complexities of Malian society or its rich history. But the idealizations and the simplifications do permit some skepticism about the picture he has created. The tradition-breaking blacksmith sings a song, in answer to criticism: "Hey, Tata, tradition is not good for everyone. One must learn and move beyond one's tradition." This is clearly a lesson that the author has learned, having become an artist (a profession not part of the traditional social system in Mali) and moved to Oregon. Another interesting lesson learned by Diakité comes at the end of the book when he visits his new in-laws in Kansas: "After my second visit, I started to realize there are many similarities with my village Kassaro in the southwestern part of Mali" (p. 129). It does seem that the narrative could have been constructed with a different slant. His final note is perhaps the most problematic. He describes a visit to his family in Mali with his wife, and how the women explain to Ronna that they have no need to be equal to men; it is rather men who wish to be equal to women (pp. 133). It is a nice, up-beat moral. But it also flies in the face of the experience of millions of women in Mali who find themselves constantly constrained by male domination of politics, business, money, and land. Here, this reader feels the author is telling Americans what they want to hear, rather than what they should learn.

Copyright 2011 Africa Access

Rating: Grade: E / M Type: Book

Reviewed by: Stephen Belcher, Independent Scholar

Subject: West Africa / Mali / Biography / Baba Wague Diakite /Non Fiction