An interview with Morenike Oyenusi, author of ‘Chasing Butterflies in the Sunlight.’
By Wakanyi Hoffman
For the African child growing up today, most picture books written about daily life in Africa present a glaring challenge to being seen as contemporary citizens of the modern world and not as extensions of their indigenous ancestors.
Long-held narratives about disease, poverty, and human-wildlife conflict have established the backdrop of writing and illustrating the African childhood story, to the extent that these images are now widely accepted as blueprints for publishing a successful story from Africa.
The late Binyavanga Wainaina, an accomplished Kenyan scholar and author, famously satirized this phenomenon in his widely published article titled How to write about Africa.
He begins by saying, “In your text, treat Africa as if it were one country. It is hot and dusty with rolling grasslands and huge herds of animals and tall, thin people who are starving. Or it is hot and steamy with very short people who eat primates.”
The accuracy of his description is at the center of many African writers’ discussion groups. The growing discomfort with international media’s generalized categorization of “African children” has in some way increased the number of self-published books by African authors, determined to fix this gross misrepresentation.
I recently had a zoom chat with debut children’s book author Morenike Oyenusi, whose self-published chapter book, Chasing Butterflies in the Sunlight, attempts to retell the story of the African Child, as seen from an expatriated, middle-class Nigerian family.
The story spans several childhood cycles in which the protagonist, Ronke, is described as reliving “The joys and innocence of a childhood experienced growing up in a beautiful, culturally and racially diverse world on a University campus in Nigeria.”
No exotic wild animals are attacking their cattle, or infectious diseases wiping up entire villages. Instead, Ronke’s childhood is dotted with memories of birthday celebrations and dressing up in colourful party frocks. Ronke’s character is relatable, and she could be any child growing up anywhere in the world. At one point, she expresses her resentment at the arrival of a new baby brother, and at another instance, she gets in trouble for breaking her mother’s favorite perfume bottle.
“This is a story that many kids in Africa can relate to, but probably not what the rest of the world expects to hear,” I comment. The conversation divulges into the depths of what it will take for stories from Africa to be authenticated for their regional diversity, multicultural complexities, and multi-lingual expressions. “This problem is the danger of the single story retold over and over,” Morenike says, referencing acclaimed Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s famous TED Talk.
In our lengthy conversation, we both express similar frustration with the absence of relatable stories to share with our children that can accurately capture everyday life in different countries across Africa. But we also admit that there are significant challenges to telling an authentic story of the African child.
For starters, Africa is not one country. It is an enormous continent, the size of 3 North Americas in one, made up of over 900 million people living in 54 linguistically distinct and culturally diverse, separate countries. Each of those countries contains many tribes, all speaking different languages.
In my birth country Kenya, there are more than 50 tribes. The difference between the Kikuyu and Maasai languages is as complicated as the difference between the French and German languages. Simply put, people from Africa, even those from the same country, do not all look alike or even understand the same language.
To properly illustrate an African story, one would also need to reveal the colonial influences that have continued to shape the continent’s growing population. For instance, my mother’s childhood stories were experienced during colonial times against a backdrop of oppression, fear, and grave inhumanity.
When I look back to my own childhood, my most memorable stories are set in a post-colonial time that celebrated English-inspired classism more than it showcased the diversity of Africa’s cultural identities. Speaking English fluently was a sign of progress, while mother-tongue-speaking homes were deemed primitive and backward.
Another reality confronting many contemporary African societies is that many cultural traditions, norms, and values have been lost over the years. Even more are steadily fading off through the combined impact of globalization and lost interest in the oral tradition of passing down stories.
These challenges also collude with the ever-present barriers of race and economic disadvantage for people of African descent and make it challenging to tell a really uplifting African childhood story.
While it has never been acceptable to exoticize the narrative to benefit readers outside Africa, it is somewhat understandable that non-African authors writing about Africa prefer not to get muddled in the complexities of this difficult history. Instead, they choose to focus on the more uncontentious story of majestic landscapes with free-roaming wildlife, which is undeniably a beautiful part of the African story.
But Chasing Butterflies in the Sunlight is creating a new shelf of classic tales that are contemporary and positively African. It is a tale that reveals glimpses of an African global nomad’s childhood, which makes this particular book a trailblazer, shattering long-held tragic images about an average African lifestyle.
Morenike confesses that the story is inspired by her American-born children’s desperate pleas to learn about the real Nigeria, and not the one portrayed in the media. The narrative is depictive of Morenike’s unique childhood, brought up by academic parents whose university professions took the family to different parts of Nigeria, and other countries outside of Africa.
“I grew up visiting London during school holidays and assumed this was a normal life,” she says. This anecdote is not intended to reference a lavish life but points to other possible, global experiences that are rarely written about the African childhood.
“It was only when I began reading African children’s books that I realized there was only this repetitive story of poverty, war, hunger, disease, that is not the only story there,” she says.
Morenike is not alone in her quest to diversify children’s books about African children. Emerging publishers such as London-based Kunda Kids and US-based Global Kidz House have dedicated their focus solely on telling African stories for African children, written and illustrated by African authors.
These new publishers are retracing their footprints back Southward to the African cities and villages where there is a growing hunger for local knowledge, where representation and authentication matter to the contemporary African child.
When I read the last sentence of Chasing Butterflies in the Sunlight to my children, one of them remarked, “We should visit Nigeria!” Ronke’s uplifting and joyful childhood is a timeless, classic tale that will be passed down to many more generations.