It’s really no wonder that Muriel Feelings’s Jambo Means Hello won a Caldecott Honor. This picture book may be in black and white, but don’t let that fool you. It’s just as engaging and interesting as any other picture book if not more so with Tom Feelings’s lively artwork. The Swahili alphabet book teaches so much, from actual pronunciation of Swahili words to the vocabulary itself, as well as the geographic regions where one can expect to encounter the language.
But it’s also so much more than that. There are so many different examples of African culture in this book that I think would really help widen the gaze of so many Americans—both children and adults!—as we seem to loop everyone from Africa together without even thinking about how different people are from different countries. Part of it may be because we are so used to being looped together in 50 separate states of one large country—but I think it’s attributed much more to the fact that we pretty much ignore Africa and the rich culture there.
Did you know that both the guitar and the xylophone either came from Africa or have roots there? I have read elsewhere that early democracies and thriving kingdoms come from Africa as well, so why the heck don’t we hear about this stuff in school? We learn about the Egyptians and that’s pretty much it. Is it a cultural shame that permeates our textbooks and souls, a guilt that makes us turn away from the continent where we kidnapped people for slavery—or a nationalistic strategy to keep us in the dark about the continent for the exact same region? Perhaps it is both, but for whatever reason, I am very interested in learning much more about Africa, and especially in helping my daughter learn more about it, too.
This book is a wonderful place to begin. Written by a teacher who lived in Africa for two years, it has a certain reverence to it that I like. It doesn’t talk down to readers or give brassy “they do it this way!” explanations that many cultural books are inclined to do. Its artwork is beautiful—simple yet emotional, conveying the joy on peoples’ faces as they interact, care for their families, and dance. Its information is just as beautiful, with terms like “heshima,” which means respect for elders. (Why do so many nations honor elders when we dump them into nursing homes?) You can learn about food, customs, beauty, and so much more with this lovely book.