African history for (woke) kids

Professor Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize with her decolonised African history book for kids. Pictire: Nomalanga Mkhize
Professor Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize with her decolonised African history book for kids. Pictire: Nomalanga Mkhize

A professor has filled a huge gap in the market by creating a decolonised history of the continent for children. Charl Blignaut chats with Nomalanga Mkhize

Makhanda-based academic and children’s book author Naledi Nomalanga Mkhize chuckles when I describe her as a woke history professor.

“I am not woke if ‘woke’ means being overly preoccupied with arguing with whiteness. I am actually a very conservative auntie with rural matriarchal tendencies,” she says.

The same is true of her book In Africa with Avi and Kumbi, a history of the continent that is a starting point for what will ultimately be a series of decolonial books on Africa from her Phaphamani Children’s Literature imprint.

“I wanted not to reflect black life as defined by white interventions on the continent, but by the fullness of human history on the continent. So I have not been preoccupied with over-representing white so-called explorers and colonisers – they are very late in Africa’s history. I wanted to represent an Africa without colonial borders. It is important for all our kids to get a sense of this African world where Africans are active agents of their own story in innovation, empire building, education, trade, resistance and liberation.”

Instead, there are fascinating and useful sections on subjects like hunting and gathering, ancient African universities, African spiritual beliefs, the slave and ivory trades, “educated Africans”, African industrial development, the independence struggle, and post-independence.

Mkhize and her daughter Lindiwe, who inspired the book. Picture: Nomalanga Mkhize

Everything about the book is true to the black African experience. Mkhize even writes it under the name Khize WamaZambezi.

“It is one of our praise names of my clan, it’s actually a joke about our physical features. When our people arrived in Pietermaritzburg, we were asked where we were from and we said South Africa and they said, no you look like you come from the Zambezi. So that is how our clan came to be amaZambezi.”

And the book, created with the illustrator Sanelisiwe Singaphi, and her partner Bulelani Booi who mostly does the layout, was entirely self-funded.

“I spent many years in the literacy sector, and I learnt from my time there that I don’t wish to accept funds from the paternalistic white-run nongovernmental organisations and the white philanthropic sector, where I am going to be patronised and treated as a charity case. This means I have had to be very independent and I think the work has come out better because of it,” Mkhize says.

The birth of her daughter Lindiwe was instrumental in Mkhize moving into kids’ books a few years ago.

“When my child was little, before she was talking, she could watch cartoons in any language, they could be Japanese on YouTube, but in the end, it all came down to Peppa Pig and Disney ... She wants a book on princesses and that’s okay when its fiction. But if I am to write about African queens as historical agents, I have to deal with their power and complexity. I mean, some historical queens are very involved in slavery and that is part of the history – the story needs to be told in all its complexity. I prefer to draw my thinking from within an African oral tradition format rather than the ‘Disneyfication’ of stories because our stories are rich and complex, and not just of good versus evil.”

Mkhize will be appearing near the Cradle of Humankind on Africa Day to promote the book, which begs the question of why evolution is not more central to the Avi and Kumbi text.

She says that it will be in her next book, which will be more fun and light-hearted.

The children’s history book deals with resistance to colonialism and the march towards independence

“I wanted to include human evolution in this book because it is part of the richness of Africa and the story of human origins. But I also realised that many readers aren’t comfortable with starting from that place. So I’m doing a history of African technology because we have so much to explore. The coastal discoveries, the use of tools, the smelting of gold, the invention of paper, the control of fire – all of these technologies tell the story of human evolution.”

She recalls a recent visit to Robben Island.

“I was with these guys from Silicon Valley in the US and these white men today who are seen as the innovators, the inventors of our technologies. In fact, they were standing at the Cape where fundamental origins of technology began that created that human tradition for them.”

. Mkhize will be appearing at the One Love Africa Day Storytelling Festival hosted by online bookstore Ethnikids on Saturday at the Nirox Sculpture Park in Kromdraai outside Johannesburg. The book is available in stores and at

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