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Are Today's Children's Books About Africa Still Racist?

We're used to seeing blatant racism in children's classics such as TinTin. But are contemporary books just as guilty of propagating African clichés?

A image from
A image from

Picture books "Babar the Little Elephant" and "Tin Tin in Congo," both published in 1931, hail from an age in which European nations claimed large parts of Africa as their own. The books, whose pages are filled with humor and loving illustrations, were written for children and adolescents. They were also full of racist, colonial thinking.

Babar tells the story of a lost elephant who meets civilization when he wanders into town. He returns to Africa wearing a suit and standing on two legs. Upon arrival, he is made king of the animals. Tin Tin tells the story of a colonial adventurer who makes his way into the jungle, where he encounters stupid people whom he easily outwits. Tin Tin, the superior and rational European, is cast in juxtaposition to the Africans, whom the comic depicts as wild, lazy and superstitious.

One year later, in Switzerland, the fantasy figure Globin was developed as an advertising object for the Globus department store. In 1935, Globin embarked on his first world tour, and a picture book depicts his unequal encounters with cannibals wearing hula skirts.

In the wake of post-World War II human rights declarations and the decolonization of Africa starting in the 1960s, critics of this literary racism became very vocal. Instead of focusing on the superiority of white colonial masters, depictions of Africa were to be fair, diverse, and from multiple perspectives.

In Switzerland, for example, the publishing house Baobab Books was founded through the Terre des Hommes initiative and the Berne Declaration of 1993. Today, Baobab publishes many German translations of African children's books.

Stereotypes die hard

But expunging African stereotypes from Western books for kids has been no easy task. Even publishers with the best intentions do not always succeed in overcoming colonial attitudes.

A case in point is the award-winning picture book "Tell Me, How is Africa," first published in 2002 by Peter Hammer Verlag in Germany. Through stories told by Papa Dembo to his grandson Chaka, young readers are encouraged to learn about "Africa and its people." But Papa Dembo's stories are all idyllic. In them, people seem to live together in perfect harmony, with each other and with their environment. Papa Dembo's personal life story seems to depict Africa as a whole – the book makes the entire continent look like a provincial fishing village.

"Tell Me, How is Africa" draws a very simple image of Africa, and the accompanying full-page illustrations show people and places that are not identifiable. Pages of text are supplemented by photographs of old masks and sculptures that are given no direct relation to history, but rather associated with a diffuse mythical image of what Africa might be.

Like many other books that seek to "explain Africa," Papa Dembo's stories begin by making the fatal distinction between "us-in-Europe" and "them-in-Africa." This sort of representation inherently results in - no matter how good the intentions - a condensed representation of African realities.

Glimpses of urban Africa

Not all children's books fall into this trap. In the French comic book series "Aya," which first appeared in 2005, the narrator and protagonist is 19-year-old Aya, who lives in Yopougon, a neighborhood of the capital of the Ivory Coast. The story follows the everyday lives of her relatives, friends and neighbors in the 1970s.

The very first image from the first volume focuses on a TV in Aya's living room. On the screen, a bicycle and a city bus can be seen: it is an excerpt from a beer commercial, the first television advertising campaign in the Ivory Coast. The texts and images in the series represent anything but a generalized, timeless Africa.

Likewise, in the French children's comic "Akissi. Attaque de chats," first published in 2010, seven episodes tell the story of little Akissi, a young girl who continues to come into contact with the adult world when she would rather be playing pranks on her older brother. Like Aya, Akissi lives in a modern city, and her story resists any exoticism.

Reality or fantasy, authentic or clichéd, Western-produced children's literature about Africa continues to say as much about us as it does about them.

Read the original article in German

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Green

Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.


"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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