5 Stereotypes About Africa in Children's Books
During the past week I have been traveling throughout Sierra Leone visiting schools in different cities and town to facilitate a professional development workshop.
If you have been to Sierra Leone, you know how stunningly beautiful the capital city of Freetown is and can get spoiled by the views of the crystal blue water, colorful buildings, and lush green mountains. However, as I went from town-to-town and city-to-city, I could not help to notice how each city and town I visited was compelling different from the one before. It made me reflect on how diverse the landscape is in one country, more or less the continent. However, this diversity in Africa is rarely captured in children’s books.
Working in education, I see how children's books can be a powerful tool in deconstructing stereotypes, breaking barriers and combating prejudice. However, many popular African children's books fall into promoting harmful stereotypes and cliches.
Here is a list of 5 Stereotypes About Africa in Children's Literature
Africa is arguably one the most geographically diverse continents. From deserts to highlands to grasslands. One country's landscape is distinctly different from the next.
However, children's picture books rarely reflect this diversity. While over sixty percent of people in Africa live in cities, you rarely see children's picture books set in an African city.
Imagine the possibilities! Maybe a story based in the bustling city of Nairobi with high skylines filled with commercial buildings. Or in a quiet suburban community in Legon or on the sandy beaches of Algiers.
While children love to see wildlife, the idea that 'Africa' is the goto setting for all things jungle and wildlife does a disservice to children and perpetuates an inaccurate view of the continent.
Very few countries in Africa can tout having a natural jungle or rainforest. Wild animals are usually only found in national parks, reserves or zoos rather than roaming freely in communities where people live. However, many picture books normalize the narrative of people living with wild animals in Africa.
However, your likelihood of seeing a cat, dog or farm animal is higher than seeing a wild animal.
Access to and use of technology has exploded on the continent over the last 20 years. In 2013, over 80 percent of people living in Africa had access to cellular phones. Social media applications such as Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp are frequently used methods of connecting for both young and old.
Also, the entertainment industry has become a multi-billion dollar industry in countries such as Nigeria. Some Nollywood films earn more than Hollywood blockbusters.
However, children's picture books about Africa are frequently centered around a life that is disconnected from modern technology.
Africa is the second largest continent and is three times the size of the United States. Unsurprisingly, with such a large land mass there is also a significant variation in climate and temperature both between and within countries in Africa. However, many children’s book set in Africa only show hot and dry conditions.
However, in the Sahara regions, temperatures can be high during the day and fall considerably at night causing those who are out at night to opt for long sleeves and jackets.
Some countries have very minimal rainfall throughout the year, while others have substantial rain and a monsoon season— yes to rain boot). Parts of Lesotho and South Africa experience below-freezing temperatures and snow during the winter season, making puffer-jackets a perfect option to beat the cold.
While most people know that the continent is home to 54 countries, children’s books based in Africa tend to make every character look the same. The notion that there is only one skin tone or hair texture that everyone shares both within and between countries in Africa is incorrect.
Africa has a diverse population, and it is not uncommon to find nationals from China, Lebanon, France, England, and America in all capital cities on the continent.
Award-winning Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said it perfectly, “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” The more children's books continue to tell a singular story about 'Africa' the more we perpetuate harmful cliches and stereotypes.