When I prepared for my first return to Liberia after my family fled due to the country’s civil war in 1989, I made sure I packed books. I packed novels for the 17-hour plane ride connecting through Brussels, those of Jesmyn Ward, Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Adichie, women writers who made me feel closest to home while so far away. Also squeezed between thin blouses and packets of anti-malarial pills were copies of the new children’s book I had just written, J is for Jollof Rice.
The book, illustrated by my younger sister, was named after the popular tomato, rice and protein mixture which many West-African countries will argue they prepare best.
I had arranged to deliver some of these books to a local elementary school near the University of Liberia’s Fendell campus, where my parents are professors and administrators.
J is for Jollof Rice
I remember walking into the classroom, greeted in polite unison by welcoming smiles and familiar accents. I was anxious to show the students this book—I never dreamed of seeing the name of a popular Liberian dish written on a page.
The Principal distributed the paperbacks, and after a a nod of the head gave silent consent, the students rushed to touch their books, the sound of flipping pages spilling onto the cement floors. It was then I heard the snickering from the back of the classroom. Two boys shared a book, and while one pointed at the cover page, sounding out the words Jo-llof-Rice, the other one laughed. Other students had similar looks of confusion.
“J is for Jollof Rice,” the teacher said. “Who has read a book talking about Jollof Rice?”
Students exchanged glances. None of them raised their hands.
That a dish as emblematic of many of their childhoods as the cool breezes of Harmattan winds, became odd, became farce when printed on a page, left a lasting impression on me. Their reactions affected not only that visit, but the trajectory of my life and career as a writer.
The purposefulness of literature
In 2010, students at Saint Mary’s college in California compared US population data with books by and about kids of colour. Using data provided from the census and the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, they found that minority children were grossly underrepresented in children’s literature. Blacks made up 12.6% of the population that year but only 4% of children’s books were about them. Hispanics made up 16.3% of the population but only 1.9% of books were about them.
This national trend is even more profound internationally, since many books used by classrooms in developing countries are from the west. Although helpful, the books (like most literature from the west) mimic western culture and narratives. The result is that elementary-aged children, many of whom have never even seen white faces, are fighting two challenges when they open up these donated books.
The first struggle is to gain competency in the letters, sounds and grammar of the English language. The second is the conceptualisation of western culture and physical characteristics–from the colour and texture of the main character’s hair to the shapes of their faces and bodies.
One Moore Book
The most important support a child can be given to ensure the successful management of their future is literacy. How much more powerful or confident would a child be if the literature they read reflects their truth, their story, their name, their country? Cultural relevance, at least in my experience, assists with their engagement and investment in literature.
That’s why I formed One Moore Book, a nonprofit organisation that publishes and distributes culturally sensitive literature for children from countries with low literacy rates and underrepresented cultures. Our books also serve the dual purpose of exposing children in the west to different cultures. We aim to partner with writers and illustrators from the countries featured in our books. We opened a small book store and community center in Monrovia in 2015, and have published 25 books featuring Liberian, Haitian, Guinean and Afro-Brazilian cultures.
Culturally sensitive literature is not a supplementary. It is essential. Success is rooted in self-confidence and a sense of belonging to this world. And what better way to show a child the permanence and importance of their histories and lives, than through a book?
While most international book donation campaigns have noble intentions, more attention should be paid to what kinds of books are distributed through these campaigns. And perhaps instead of just sending over boxes of books, alternative efforts can empower local writers to create their own original materials for distribution.
Liberian writers and literacy groups like Michael Weah’s We Care Library, Brenda Moore’s KEEP Liberia, Elma Shaw, Forte Othniel and others, could do more for the Liberian child through their programs and materials.