Anna Hibiscus

by Atinuke; ill. by Lauren Tobia

Kane Miller, 2010

111 pages

If a roving pollster were to ask you to describe Africa in one word, what would you say?  If your vision of Africa has been formed primarily by the popular media, you’d probably say something like “war-torn” or “destitute.”  After all, the Africa we see on CNN or in Hollywood movies is a hot mess of civil wars, AIDS infections, and incomprehensible poverty.

That kind of portrayal makes it easy just to write off Africa, or assume a patronizing here-let-us-wise-white-Westerners-fix-everything-for-you kind of attitude.  And that’s not really the kind of attitude I want my daughter to have.

I want her to understand–from an early age, because attitudes formed in childhood have a tendency to stick–that the reality of Africa is far more nuanced than what she’ll be seeing in the media as she grows older.  Which is why I was thrilled to discover Anna Hibiscus, about a young girl living in an unnamed African city.

Inspired by Nigerian-born author Atinuke’s own African childhood, the book is a collection of little stories that center around preschooler Anna and her interactions with her large extended family.

They all (even Anna’s white Canadian mother) are indelibly African: three generations live as one nuclear family in the same house, they wear traditional dress, they eat traditional food, they don “family cloth” for church and kneel to greet the family patriarch and matriarch.

But they are also eminently relatable.  The adults drive cars, everyone has a cell phone, the family kitchen has a large freezer and pro-style range.  Even the kids’ pastimes are familiar: they dig holes and build sandcastles at the beach, have pillow fights, and climb trees.

Most importantly, the family is caring, stable, and fun-loving.  Their interactions with each other–and especially with Anna–evoke an atmosphere of authentic warmth and security that translates across cultures and reaches into a child’s heart.

And that’s why my daughter and I both loved this book.  We saw in this big African family an essential humanity that matched our own.  My daughter kept pointing to similarities between herself and Anna: they both have a lot of cousins, they both like to be with people, they’ve both been to the ocean.

It’s important to note that, in all this, Atinuke and Tobia never sanitize.  The reality is that Africa does grapple with some of the greatest problems of our age: poverty, illness, and violence on a shocking scale.  And the book acknowledges that.  The city where Anna lives is overcrowded and polluted, with shantytowns dotting the outskirts.  Families of beggars sit on the sidewalk; homeless children sell oranges outside her family’s gate.

But, through Anna’s life, children learn that all this darkness and squalor is not all there is to see of Africa.  Africa and Africans have beauty, courage, determination, dignity–both in affluent settings, like Anna’s home, and among the poor.

And that, I hope, is what will keep my daughter from seeing Africa as a hopeless case, or in need of patronizing intervention.  I hope books like this will inspire her to see the continent and its people as real, human, full of beauty and potential (some of it already realized, some of it still nascent), and as key collaborators on the world stage.

Oh, and by the way, want to know what one word Atinuke uses to describe Africa?  “Amazing.”  Take that, CNN.

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