Category: Children's Books

Lutz van Dijk
Afrika - Geschichte eines bunten Kontinents
[Africa - The history of a colorful continent]


Outside the Box

After reading this book it is impossible simply to go back to business as usual. It moves and excites all spheres of reason and emotion. For hours—no, for days. Again and again, you ask yourself: What ideas—to some extent naïve ones—have we adopted over the years and decades about an entire continent? A continent that is among the oldest on the planet and the richest in mineral resources. And on top of that is the cradle of humankind. A continent bustling with more than a billion people belonging to thousands of ethnic groups, speaking two thousand recognized languages, and living in fifty-four different countries.
And we from outside this part of the world or from its margins refer to this landmass—out of ignorance or for the sake of simplicity—as the “Dark Continent,” although it is so bright and colorful, so diverse and more surprising than we ever would have imagined. This book reviewer is by all means open to social, political, and cultural aspects of life; nevertheless I must admit that the skewed mosaic that I had put together about Africa over the course of my life is filled with incredible gaps and marked by prejudices, fears, half- or even quarter-truths, cultural and political clichés, and more or less well-known names and events, all of which are floating around in my memory without any cohesive structure. These images that people the world over have of Africa are characterized by such an astounding chaos of information, (piecemeal) knowledge and ignorance, as well as ressentiment!

Now this book by Lutz van Dijk offers us amazing and—especially—sound insights into life outside our familiar box. From one page to the next it opens the eyes of its readers to the diversity and complexity of this continent, in the past and the present. It opens not only our eyes, but also our hearts in the face of the unspeakable suffering that people there were forced to experience during five centuries of colonization, missionization, and exploitation. It suggests the indescribable pain that people inflicted on other people—whether brothers, sisters, or strangers—in the name of an ideology or religion, in the name of power, influence, and privilege. And in the name of hatred toward people who think and live differently, such as sexual or religious minorities. That is one side of the story. It is told by Lutz van Dijk openly and with detailed, concrete examples from many countries on the continent.
And then there’s the other side. This book introduces us to numerous African voices of hope for a better future. Young and old people tell their stories; educated and uneducated people, simple farmers, mothers, artists, activists for human rights and justice, statesmen and stateswomen. Some of them lost their lives in the struggle for integrity and justice. Some of them—first and foremost Nelson Mandela—did not only contribute significantly to reconciliation in their respective country, but also encouraged and strengthened democratic movements that fought nonviolently for freedom, human dignity, and equality, in many African countries and throughout the world. The foreword to van Dijk’s book was written by Desmond Mpilo Tutu, South African archbishop and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

Afrika—Geschichte eines bunten Kontinents (Africa—History of a Colorful Continent) is clearly structured: divided into four main chapters (“African times,” “African civilizations,” “African oppression,” and “African liberations”), with an introduction that arouses curiosity (“the oldest and also the youngest continent”) and an engaging epilogue—a passionate appeal to the brotherhood and sisterhood of people of different ethnic backgrounds and creeds (“Africa as part of the one world”).
The German-Dutch author Lutz van Dijk has received a number of awards for his writing. Decades ago he was already active, challenging the apartheid policies of the South African government. He has lived in Cape Town since 2001, the year he also won the Gustav Heinemann Peace Prize in Germany for his novel Township Blues. Van Dijk is cofounder of a foundation that supports children and adolescents with AIDS and he has written and published numerous informative nonfiction books and novels, many of them for young people. In 2015 he completely revised his book on Africa that had come out more than ten years ago, expanding it to include many African voices that tell their own stories. They “tell” the stories in the truest sense of the word, not merely “describing” them.

I’d like to close by citing from “Great Grandma’s Salt,” a story by the writer Amma Darko of Ghana: “Our history as Africans knows so much suffering and pain. That we are still able to smile and laugh says something about a certain strength which is not covered in any other history book I know of. And yet it is not described as a strange miracle, … but as something out of the most human nature we all share on this planet.”1

1 Cited in Lutz van Dijk, A History of Africa (Cape Town: Tafelberg, 2006), 225.

Siggi Seuß

By Siggi Seuß, 08.06.2016

​Siggi Seuß, freelance journalist, radio script writer and translator, has been writing reviews of books for children and young people for many years.

Translated by Allison Brown