Our Story Starts In Africa

Our Story Starts in Africa
Patrice Lawrence, illustrated by Jeanetta Gonzales
Magic Cat

Paloma is visiting Trinidad, staying with Tante Janet and is eager to play with her cousins whom she’s not met before. They however don’t want to play with her; “How can you be family?” they say in response to her different way of speaking. Paloma’s sadness at her cousins’ comments is palpable in Jeanetta Gonzales richly hued illustrations, but Tante Janet is on hand to comfort her and tell her a secret.

Little by little she tells Paloma a story, one that starts in Africa. She explains how the comb the child holds is like combs found by scientists investigating the banks of the River Nile in northeastern Africa, used by people similar to the two of them, who lived thousands of years back, The conversation moves to warrior queens of yore, in particular one who fought the Romans two thousand years ago. I love how present and past come together by the visual juxtaposing of Paloma and her aunt, the comb and the historic ruler they are talking of.

This device continues to be used as their discussion turns to story telling and how African people preserved their stories on parchment, carved in stone, painted in caves and on jars, woven into kente cloth and through the beating of talking drums, not forgetting most importantly the passing on of stories orally from generation to generation. “Just like we’re doing now, Tante!” says Paloma.

Prompted by Paloma’s next question about writing books, the narrative turns to the role of libraries past and present, by which time the two decide to have a break for some refreshing ginger beer specially made by Tante Janet. This necessitates picking some limes from the yard, which is full of trees that Paloma hasn’t ever seen before. As the picking proceeds the two discuss some of Africa’s treasures; fruits, spices, precious wood and frankincense resin used in perfume making. Children will be horrified to read of jealous rulers from other lands, stealing diamonds, gold and most precious of all, African people.

Then with the limes collected, the subject of enslavement comes up :“That’s how we came to Trinidad,” Tante Janet says, leading on to colonisation,

and eventually through the wretched times of colonisation and enslavement, to the emergence of the fifty African countries comprising a thriving, present-day community of many places, faces and achievements.

That is where this superbly illustrated, engagingly and sensitively written book differs from many others about the African continent wherein the focus tends to be on (non contentious) topics like dance, music and traditional costume. How refreshing and exciting is Patrice’s approach for any adult who wants to present Black history to today’s youngsters, including this reviewer who feels increasingly ashamed of British policies and actions both past and present.

(In the final spread there’s more information about the topics discussed during the story.)