________________ CM . . . . Volume XVI Number 26 . . . . March 12, 2010


A Gift From Childhood: Memories of an African Boyhood.

Baba Wagué Diakité.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood Books, 2010.
136 pp., hardcover, $19.95.
ISBN 978-0-88899-931-3.

Subject Headings:
Diakité, Baba Wagué-Childhood and youth.
Mali-Biography-Juvenile literature.
Mali-Social life and customs-Juvenile literature.

Grades 3-7 / Ages 8-12.

Review by Karen Boyd.

** /4


An inner tube was a valuable thing for boys, because we could slice it with a razor blade into fine strips for slingshot rubber. Every young boy fashioned his own slingshot rubber. Every young boy fashioned his own slingshot to wear proudly around his neck. We always had a pocket full of stones at the ready to practice our marksmanship.

But when we came closer to this pink inner tube floating on the water, we were stunned at a transformation that was taking place right before our eyes.

The inner tube was a hungry albino cobra snake that had been holding onto its own tail to deceive prey. The snake slowly unfolded itself and straightened for a moment before wriggling and diving into the blurry red water of the river.


Exciting stories of snakes, bees and catfish make this memoir by artist and storyteller Baba Wagué Diakité a delightful read. Wagué was four-years-old when he left the city and moved to the Malian village of Kassaro to live with his grandparents. His memories of his time in the village and the wisdom of his grandmother are told with warmth and humour. Grandma is very clear that children "cannot go to school until they are educated," and she takes it upon herself to ensure that this education is completed. This education includes lessons through storytelling that provides the young Wagué, which means Man of trust, with strong values that remain with him throughout his life.

     As an adult reading these stories, I found them engaging and interesting. I did wonder how they would appeal to children reading them on their own. Many of the stories require a contextual background in history and culture that is assumed rather than told in the stories. Others rely on "reading between the lines" for meaning. Baba tells a detailed story of the coming of age ritual of "washing hands" which is a euphemism for circumcision.

A moment later, each boy was called and one by one taken into a small chamber where the real hand washing took place. Some screamed and some only shed tears, but I knew that this was our bridge to manhood

     Later he refers to learning "many traditional circumcision songs" during recuperation, but that is the only explanation of the ceremony. This could be a very interesting story but it may be more effective with adult facilitation for understanding. Without it, it could be very confusing to young readers.

internal art

     The memoir covers the author's life from the age of four to the present. Wagué is eventually sent back to live with his mother and siblings in the city of Bamako and attend a French school. This can be assumed to have been a very difficult transition from life with his grandmother in a small village, but the difficulties are only dealt with on the surface. When Wagué has difficulty with some city bullies, his mother goes over to talk to the parents and the issue is immediately resolved. While this may have been the case, it may read somewhat unrealistically for North American audiences and again would benefit from context provided by adults. The adult stories of immigrating to America, marrying, developing relationships with in-laws, and having children may extend past the young adult audience's interests.

     Throughout the book, the themes of learning, storytelling, tradition, and family are developed as important life lessons. The accompanying art is beautiful and enhances that text. It also demonstrates why the author is an award-winning artist. The line and colour of the drawings contribute to the cultural understandings in the book.

     There are many excellent parts to this book. Many of the stories stand alone and could be used as short stories. Many of them lend themselves to a read-aloud and discussion. I am not sure that children would pick up this book to read from cover to cover, nor can I see it as an effective read-aloud as a whole. A lovely book with a unclear audience.

Recommended with reservations.

Karen Boyd is a graduate student in Language and Literacy at the University of Manitoba and teaches in the Bachelor of Education program.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
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