Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Silent Partners

Magazine article UNESCO Courier

Silent Partners

Article excerpt

For centuries, children in East African countries gathered around the fire, usually after their evening meal, to listen to stories told by their grandparents. Boys learned about the exploits of brave men and legendary hunters, while girls learned the secrets of a successful marriage.

Today this tradition is disappearing. "Modernized" stories for children are told in classrooms, libraries and clubs by teachers and librarians. Many parents and grandparents no longer have the time to sit around the fire telling stories, and even if they did, the extended family is contracting. Most children no longer live in villages with their grandparents but with their parents in cities and towns.

One consequence of these changes is that traditional stories are being passed down to the next generation through a growing body of children's books and the children's sections of daily newspapers such as the Kampala (Uganda) New Vision. Most of the books are published in English, but quite a number are being written in the major African languages, especially Kiswahili. The stories are mainly based on myths, folklore and legends, although some of them contain sharp social commentary.

The authors tend to use their writing to send a message - to teach, criticize, or try to correct a social injustice. Most try to help children to learn about themselves and their community, explaining how they are expected to behave now and when they become adults. Their books are based on strong moral precepts.

My daughter is my fortune

The image of women as a commodity is pervasive. A Son of Kabira, a popular book by Ugandan author Davis Sebukima, tells the story of a preacher, Nanziri, who says of his daughter, "I shall make a fortune out of her." His attitude is in line with traditional practice, especially in rural areas, where daughters may be sold in marriages that make their parents a fortune.

In the same book, the author describes an argument between two co-wives about the best way to celebrate the homecoming of their husband's son. When the husband intervenes, he says, "Don't start shouting now, you will disturb my head. It is as if you were beating a drum in it." The women immediately stop arguing and go away because they know their husband has no interest in what they have to say. He alone will decide what is to be done.

Solomon E.K. Mpalanyi's Ndikumma Okolya also shows women meekly accepting their subordinate role. When one of the characters tells her friends that her husband mistreats her and probably has a lover, they are unsympathetic and laugh at her predicament. They agree that her husband's behaviour is wrong, but tell her that she must put up with it as a normal part of married life. In the local language in which the book was written, they say, "Take care, friend, your husband can beat you up with your own stick."

Another image offered to child readers is that of woman as a family servant. In one story by Davis Sebukima, a carpenter with two wives receives a visit from the village chief, whereupon he calls his first wife and asks her to bring some beer. The first wife is preparing lunch and so the carpenter orders his second wife to serve the beer. She is busy with the housework, but she stops what she is doing, does as she is asked and, as tradition demands, kneels down, fills the glasses and serves the men. She remains seated and refills the glasses when the men empty them until her co-wife brings in the lunch.

The message is that the woman must serve the man. When the chief arrived, the carpenter's wives were busy. He was doing nothing and could easily have fetched the beer himself. But this is not a husband's job, and so he ordered his subservient wives to do it for him.

In Fixions, first published in Nairobi in 1969, Taban lo Liyong writes about an old man so rich that he had married sixty-five wives who had cost him 8,000 head of cattle in bride price. Here the author is telling young readers that a man's wealth, status, prestige and social respectability are judged by the number of wives he has. …

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