In his evergreen book, Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain tells the story of a young ragamuffin and his going down the Mississipi with the runaway slave Jim, showing the adult world of the 19th Century American South and its bigotry and injustice through the eyes of a teenage boy, all in fantastic prose.
In Treasure Island, R.L Stephenson invented the swashbuckling tale of adventure that is the source of most popular perceptions of pirates, again through the eyes of a boy.
Other children’s writers have gone for thrilling and complex stories of great rebellions, valiant adventures and hair’s-breadth escapes and close shaves of soldiers, mercenaries, scouts, undercover agents, and refugees.
However, some writers have conquered the world by keeping it simple.
For example, words like – “May in Ayemenem is a hot, brooding month. The days are long and humid. The river shrinks and black crows gorge on bright mangoes in still, dustgreen trees. Red bananas ripen. Jackfruits burst.” – are an unusual way to set out to conquer the world but that’s how Arundhati Roy started her masterpiece, The God of Small Things.
Barbara Kimenye, the renowned children’s writer of East Africa who passed on recently, kept it even simpler – she served us an unusual menu in the Moses series. This is a series made up of 11 adventure stories published between 1968 and 1987.
The thrust of the stories is the delinquency of boys in a boarding school.
The books have three running characters, boys who are always in trouble with authority: Moses Kibaya (Holy Moses), Sebastian Mulutu (King Kong) and Rukia (the Dorm 3 prefect). These three together with others are students at the Mukibi Educational Institute for the Sons of African Gentlemen.
Holy Moses describes the school in unflattering terms, “I cannot say there was anything unusually impressive about the institute itself. To me it looked the poorer, seedier type of junior secondary school, and I was certainly in a position to make the comparison. There was a collection of low, shabby buildings, most of them with thatched roofs, and a compound that no self-respecting cowherd would allow his beasts to graze in.”
By zeroing in on the boys’ troubles with the school authorities, Kimenye gives the first lesson to budding writers – captivating the audience by addressing what they can directly identify with.
When the young audience reads about Holy Moses’s attempts to escape from school, they can identify with him.
In their first escape attempt, King Kong and Holy Moses leave Dorm 3 in the middle of the night, “We went on talking long after lights out and I was beginning to wonder whether any of the boys would go to sleep before midnight. I worried so much about this that I fell asleep myself. I almost shouted out aloud when King Kong shook my shoulder and whispered, ‘Come on, Moses, it’s time we were moving’”.
The second lesson is the choice of words. Kimenye grades her vocabulary and selects her words carefully so as not to alienate her young readers.
A good example is how Holy Moses describes Mr Mukibi, the headmaster of the school, when he first arrives at the school, “He raced towards us looking for all the world like a giant marabou stork. This may sound a bit exaggerated, but you should have seen him! Let me describe him from the top downwards."
"He was bald, his eyes were hooded by creased, wrinkled lids, and his long, hooked nose was like a beak. What a masterpiece of physical beauty this head was! It nodded precariously on the longest, scraggiest neck I had ever seen. His limbs were as awkward as pieces of string roughly fastened on to a potato, and he stood about six feet high.”
The tone is just right for a boy who despises authority – and keeps readers glued to the page.
Some people have argued that such stories of disdain for authority could harm children’s morals, but other people have countered that the flights of imagination are only for entertainment.
What cannot be gainsaid is that Barbara Kimenye has left an enduring legacy of the most absorbing series of children’s books – with a host of fans not only in East Africa but all around the world.
John Mwazemba is the chief executive of Phoenix Publishers. [email protected]