CM . . .
. Volume XII Number 3 . . . . September 30, 2005
Originally published in 1990 as Little White Man, Meja Mwangi’s story chronicles the problematic friendship of two boys, one Kenyan and one British, during the 1950’s Mau-Mau Revolt that challenged British Colonial rule over Kenya. Mwangi’s work won the prestigious Deutscher Jugendliteraturepreis by winning the hearts and minds of both youth and adult jury members, no small accomplishment. The book combines adventure and that first unforgettable taste of freedom and power, with a powerful lesson in African history and the systemic impact of violence that accompanies colonial rule.
The book begins with young Kariuki’s growing fear that his difficult life may be becoming more difficult, with the Mau-Mau, Kenyan rebels fighting British colonial land owners being the source of his village’s growing problems. Someone has stolen Bwana Ruin’s rifle, and the white land owner has herded the village that comprises his workforce into the cattle auction pens to interrogate and intimidate. When Kariuki hears his father’s name called by one of the hundreds of white soldiers called in stem the growing threat of rebellion, he believes he might never see him again. But his father is Bwana Ruin’s valued cook, spared in order that Bwana Ruin’s breakfast is not delayed.
Kuriuki’s life is filled with violence and injustice. He survives the day-long imprisonment only to be beaten by the headmaster of his school the next day for being absent from class. He also endures beatings from his classmates, brother, and father. But he finds his refuge in the rivers, pools and forests that surround his home. One afternoon while watching a duck family at the pond, Kuriuki is confronted by two Mau-Mau soldiers who force him to deliver a message to his brother Hari. On his way, he is intercepted by his mother and is sent to the pond to collect water. Here he encounters Bwana Ruin’s grandson Nigel, unaware that the Kenyan boy is meant to be treated as a recalcitrant labourer, rather than a friend. Kuriuki is immediately aware of the risk posed by the cheerful white boy, but he is drawn into a friendship regardless. The boys share a
The boys’ hunting adventures are rich with danger and suspense. Nigel learns which berries are lethal, how to conduct himself around cobras, and all about the world of the Jimis, the just barely domesticated dogs that accompany the boys on their forest excursions. Undeterred by adults who warn both boys to stay apart and several close calls in the forest, the boys set their sights on hunting down Old Moses, the oldest, meanest warthog in the forest. They take along Bwana Ruin’s guard dogs, Salt and Paper, which are as naive of the dangers of the forest and its inhabitants as young Nigel. But Old Moses does not pose the biggest threat to the safety of the boys. Mau-Mau soldiers capture Nigel, and fearing he had abandoned his friend, Kuriuki sets off to rescue him, at unimaginable personal cost.
This honest, poignant story offer readers an invaluable introduction to colonial history in Africa and the scars this history has left on its cultures and people. Meja Mwangi’s book offers an opportunity to understand and discuss the roots and legacy of racism, as well as create an awareness of how the oppression that still exists in many forms impacts young people around the world. It would be enjoyed as an independent book choice or as classroom reading. As Judi Saltman writes in the Riverside Anthology of Children’s Literature, “The best realistic fiction for children...has always been distinguished by historical accuracy, precise observation, emotional truthfulness, strong plot, and well-rounded, sympathetic characters. And all the best stories for children, of whatever type, have one common element: They speak with a personal voice” (p. 668). The Mzungu Boy exemplifies realistic fiction at its best.
Lori Walker has a PhD. in Communication from Simon Fraser University and has returned to school to indulge in a Masters in Children’s Literature at UBC.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.