Beneath the Rainbow: Enchanting Stories and Poems from Kenya, Illustrated by African Artists
By Maria Popova
Although some of the world’s most influential storytelling was created in eras before “the West” as we know it even existed — from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey set in Ancient Greece to Arabian Nights representing the Middle East — the vast majority of modern storytelling permeating popular culture today, especially when it comes to children’s books, has a decidedly Western bias.
Enter Beneath the Rainbow — an enchanting collection of mystical children’s stories and poems from Kenya, published by Kenya’s Jacaranda Design and distributed by global literacy nonprofit Worldreader as the first in an ongoing series, featuring motifs and characters from traditional African myths reimagined by modern-day writers and brought to life with expressive illustrations by African artists.
Sun, Wind, and Cloud, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Phyllis Koinange and John Okello, tells the story of an ancient quarrel the Sun and the Wind had over who was stronger, which only a tiny white Cloud floating overhead is able to settle.
When each element tries to prove its supremacy, fire and drought ensue — the Sun burns the land and the Wind blows the smoke into the little Cloud’s eyes. But as she begins to cry, she restores balance and safety to the animals, who had begun to flee in horror, and helps the Sun and Wind realize that strength only matters if it is a life-giving force, not a destructive one.
In the sky, Sun and Wind agreed that Cloud was stronger than either of them.
Even to this day, when the animals see the clouds growing dark and heavy with rain, they stop what they are doing to give thanks and praise to Ngai, the god of all living things, who saved them from both drought and fire.
It is a parable about ego and selflessness, construction and destruction, vanity and valor — an African version of the familiar Aesop’s Fables.
In “Run,” poet Sam Mbure and illustrator Pat Keay explore the gentler face of the elements with a beautiful celebration of private everyday happiness:
Come down sweet rain;
Come rain on me
Like you rain on the tree,
The maize and the grass;
And they grow and grow.
Come down sweet rain,
End famine and thirst.
Soon the market will overflow;
Vegetables and fruits, maize and beans;
And I’ll grow and grow and grow.
Come down sweet rain
Wash away dust and dirt
Fill our drum with sweet rain water
So that tomorrow I can sleep till nine.
And I’ll be happy, happy to rest.
Come down sweet rain
Shut out drought and heat
Swell rivers, ponds and seas
Then as I swim naked in the pool
I’ll join the frogs singing for you.
The Ostrich and the Wizard, written by Kariuki Gakuo and illustrated by Sironka Averdung and John Okello, tells the prehistoric tale of young Earth and creatures first began to populate it. The Ostrich, unsure of whether she was a bird or an animal, struggles with her quest for identity — heartened by laying a large white egg, she decides she’s a bird; but when the other birds realize she can’t fly, they ostracize her with scorn. She runs and runs, unable to find where she belongs.
The ostrich ran faster and faster and the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker. The giant eyes of the crocodile were red and swollen with the dust, while the salty tears of the elephants and hippos formed great pools around their feet. In the hot sun the pools of tears dried up and formed deep salt licks.
But the ostrich did not stop running. Faster and faster she ran while behind her the cloud of dust whirled thicker and thicker.
Gorgeously illustrated and beautifully written, like all the stories and poems in the collection, it’s an allegory about the essence of home and belonging.
Published September 11, 2013