Unveiling Malawi’s child literary prodigy; writing her way to the future

posted in: Africa

Priscilla Takondwa Semphere and author Chimamanda Adichie, Photo:chroniclesofagappie

PANA, Raphael Tenthani

Blantyre, Malawi – She’s is only 19 but she has just published a book. OK, several years ago Nigerian magical realist writer Ben Okri wrote his first book at 17 but what made Malawian Priscilla Takondwa Semphere delve into serious literature is instructive of how serious is her crusade to a literary future.

She went to a shopping mall in Johannesburg, South Africa, on a frenzied search for a newly-released novel by a Nigerian author that she respects so much – Chimamanda Adichie. Hours of hopping from one bookstore to the other proved fruitless.

“What was the most frustrating for me, however, wasn’t merely the fact that in a mall in a hub such as Johannesburg, I had failed to find a novel by someone who is arguably Africa’s most prominent writer right now,” recalls Priscilla. “It was the pitiful amount of African novels that filled the bookshelves in the bookstores in comparison to Western ones.”

She describes as “rather shameful” that titles like The Great Gatsby, which she argues are not only foreign but also nearly a century old, were in abundance.

Priscilla tried her luck again when she got back home in Malawi.

“I went into a couple of bookstores and my heart sank; African books didn’t make up a quarter of the stock. They didn’t even make up a quarter of the bookshelves on which the books sat,” she laments.

Priscilla says her futile hunt for the African novel gave birth to PenAfrica, an organisation she co-founded with other students at the African Leadership Academy in South Africa, under the Student Enterprise Programme.

“At the heart of the organisation is promoting African literature, increasing its accessibility, and producing more African literature,” she writes in a paper she ambitiously entitled ‘The Birth of PenAfrica’.

With her PenAfrica Ethiopian co-founder Hayat Mohammed Seid, Priscilla launched a children’s book series entitled ‘Ekari Book Series’ targeted at seven- to nine-year-olds. The series revolves around an eight-year-old Malawian protagonist, Ekari, as she travels to different countries around the continent.

The first book in the series, ‘Ekari Leaves Malawi’, is already on the market.

“Ekari is a Lhlomwe (the dominant tribe in southern Malawi) name meaning ‘good fortune’,” explains the young author. “We hope that through the series young African readers will learn more about each other’s cultures in a modern African society.”

But Priscilla also has more egalitarian wishes for her series. She says she hopes the series will help change the stereotypes associated with the African child like child soldiers or children orphaned by AIDS.

“While these are the realities of many children all over the continent, the reality is there are also children who grow up healthy and happy on the continent whose stories are often untold,” she says.

Priscilla says the series is already proving a big hit with a board member at the African Leadership Academy telling her team: “African children need a story like this.”

The book was officially launched earlier this month at the African Leadership Network Conference in Mauritius. Priscilla describes the event as memorable where she brushed shoulders with politicians, the literati of the African novel notably her idol Chimamanda Adichie and media glitterati like Komla Dumor, presenter of BBC’s flagship news programme ‘Focus on Africa’.

The very first volume of the series was launched at the event and, according Priscilla, it was a great success.

“Many of the leaders present purchased their copies, and we had a great auction where the last available copy of the book, co-signed by me and Chimamanda Adichie, went for US $1,200,” she beams.

Priscilla hopes the series will be the beginning of three things.

“Firstly, (is) a much-needed interaction between African countries at the everyday level. At the moment, most of what many Africans know about each other is based on stereotypes and generalisations formed on the basis of rumours,” she suggests.

Secondly, says Priscilla, with the series she wants a better perception of the continent.

“It’s crazy, but a lot of the world thinks we are a backward civilization that rides on hyenas and lives in trees,” she says.

Last, but certainly not least, Priscilla wants to achieve what made her co-found PenAfrica in the first place.

“We want to create an addition to the database of African literature so that young readers can walk into bookstores across the continent and have access to stories that they can relate to,” she says hopefully.

Priscilla, daughter to Patrick Semphere who writes a long-running weekly parenting column in the Weekend Nation, hopes the series will create a platform for “little readers across the continent and around the world” to kindle what she terms as “a cultural curiosity”.

“I hope that it will teach children to ask the right questions about other people and cultures, and that they will seek out the right answers for those questions,” she concludes.

The inaugural volume in the ‘Ekari Book Series’, an attractive and easy-to-read booklet for both the young and the elderly beautifully illustrated by an American artist Scott Baldwin, clearly succeeds in that.

Priscilla takes Ekari, the Malawian protagonist of the book, right from her bed as her family packs its bags to embark on its continent-wide adventure.

Her mother, a television journalist, has just landed a lucrative job.

“The family was going to travel with her all around the African continent as she went to cover news stories for a big television station.”

Priscilla’s book is only 28 pages long but she effortlessly – albeit matter-of-factly – weaves her simple prose into a plot that can fill a thousand pages by more mature authors.

In one paragraph she captures the African-ness of the child protégé of her book.

“As she walked out of her bedroom, through the highly piled boxes, she imagined that she was a hard-working villager, walking through brown mud huts with thatched roofs, on her way to the waterhole. She pictured other villagers by the waterhole, laughing, chatting and washing their clothes.”

In the short pages Priscilla brings to life a true African family with the grandmother still playing the motherly role she played for her father, her brothers, her husband and, in latter years, her grandchildren.

Through the grandmother, Priscilla cleverly develops the plot further around Ekari’s surroundings, her extended family and friends. Love and cuisine being integral in the African life, Priscilla brings Ekari to describe to the world about Uncle Thomas and Aunt Thoko’s betrothal and the farewell buffet that had everything from chambo fillet, nsima and chigumu to bonongwe and denje dishes.

After taking the story all over one would forgive the budding author if the central theme of the series – the Malawian protagonist, Ekari, gallivanting across the continent – was lost in translation.

But, no, Priscilla proves how serious she was with her plot and stays in tune with the theme. And who to hammer the punch-line home than the grandmother?

Granny has just given Ekari a piece of wrapper – chitenje, some on the continent would say kitenge:

“I’ll make one just like this from the fabric of every country we visit, and we can stitch them all together to make a pan-African quilt.”

And there in Priscilla Takondwa Semphere a child Malawian literary protégé is born.

Ekari’s next adventure is set for Egypt. One cannot wait to read the Malawian protagonist’s adventures as she wades her way around the pyramids!