SDG Book Club African Chapter's Lorato Trok celebrates children in the desert.
27 June 2022
June 7 2022. It was four days before Christmas 2021 and I was in the Northern Cape visiting my familyIt was hot and the only thing that could save me was my writing. I opened up my laptop even though I had vowed not to check emails at all. There was an email from my publisher and the first thing I saw was ‘Congratulations’. My first thought was that her company had won an award because I saw that the email was from the UN. There was no way my name was linked to the United Nations. Then, I read the email and screamed! My book had been picked by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals Book Club African Chapter. It had been selected for its reading list as one of the best books in Africa in English in the SDG 5 Gender equality category for children ages 6-12. Ecstatic is an understatement. This was the highest honour of my career. Social media was abuzz. My small town was proud. The media caught wind of it and I became the talk of the town.
Then I got news in the new year that I had been selected by the SDG Book Club Africa to attend the 2022 Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival in the United Arab Emirates.This is a major scoop for any author. Sharjah is without argument the literature hub of the United Arab Emirates! The date was set. Sunday May 15th. My flight was not until 1.30 in the afternoon. I was there by 11 in the morning. Why was there no movement at the Emirates counters? Was I too early? Only to find out that my flight had been re-scheduled for 10.30 am! The travel agency did not alert me. But nothing was going to stop me from going to Sharjah. I contacted the organisers. On Monday May 16th, I was on my flight to Dubai. Sheikh Khalifa bin zayed al Nahyan, The President of the UAE had just passed on. The region was in mourning. My scheduled Monday event had been postponed to Tuesday May 17th. All things aligned.
The organisers of the Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival went all out. This was one of the most organised children’s content events I have ever attended. Children’s content creators from all corners of the globe were there. From Australia to Iraq. Animators, illustrators, cartoonists, authors, television producers, the list goes on. Although Africa’s pool of authors was a tiny representation of the continent (Kenya, Morocco and South Africa), the 3 of us made an impact during our panel discussion. Kenyan academic and author, Christopher Okemwa, lit up the hall when he sang an African folksong from one of his books. It was great to see people running from other parts of the venue to witness the pulse of Africa.
Since my career has predominantly been in field work and promoting literacy in young people, the schools outreach programme was the highlight of my time in Sharjah.It was impressive to see the level of appreciation for the author and the exceptional organisation that the three schools I visited in Dubai and Sharjah had put into my visit. From the principal to the librarian as well as head boys and girls, it was visible that the leadership of the schools took these visits seriously and respected my work as an author. They had done research on my work and displayed pictures of my books and my photo on the entrance of their libraries. How heart-warming! We had robust discussions about injustice, inequality, the environment and yes, how to be a writer. Young people are the future.
As an African author of children’s picture books and non-fiction biographies for young adults (YA), it is a tall order to have my work celebrated and treated with the same respect our peers who are novelists and non-fiction adult authors receive in the mainstream in Africa. It’s rare that our work is considered for international prizes. Even though research has shown that being exposed to literature at an early age is a child’s passage to lifelong learning, there is no dedicated children’s literacy event in Africa within the a flurry of annual literature events in major cities of the continent.
It was important for me to attend this festival as it has entrenched my belief that writing for children is not a futile exercise. The celebration of children by assembling celebrated creators of children’scontent on the highest pedestal was an eye opener. That a writer from rural Kenya, a black woman author from a small town in South Africa can be on the same stage with Vashti Harrison, a New York Times best-selling children’s author-illustrator and two-times NAACP award recipient is a testament to our shared passion for children. It was this passion that had brought us from our respective countries onto a shared platform at Sharjah Children’s Reading Festival.
The UN SDG Book Club African is a welcome platform. It will elevate children’s authors and bring much needed attention to this crop of writers. May this be a firm step towards many more platforms for the celebration of children’s authors.
UN SDG Book Club African Chapter author of Rosina Sedibane Modiba: A Dream Denied and other books.