Ashanti to Zulu : African Traditions by Margaret Musgrove

1977 Caldecott Medal Winner: Ashanti to Zulu: African Traditions, illustrated by Leo & Diane Dillon; text: Margaret Musgrove (Dial)IMG_3926

This picture book was fascinating- and one I would recommend- although I believe this book would  not appeal to most children- however, I do think adults,  especially those who are similar age to myself ie: born in the 1970’s will enjoy this informative non- fiction read.

The illustrations by Leo and Diane Dillon are iconic- the flat images convey insights into tribal life of many different people groups all over the vast continent of Africa. The book is arranged in an alphabet style- featuring 26 separate illustrations highlighting unique practices and customs which echo scene’s familiar from my childhood viewing countless National Geographic documentaries featuring exotic countries such as Uganda, Liberia, and Mali.

The scenes feel familiar and strangely foreign at the same time-



Q- Quimbande (keem. bahn. deh) children can have as many as twenty -five brothers and sisters if their father can afford them.  A wealthy Quimbande man can have many wives.  Each wife lives with her children in a separate house in his compound.  In the middle of the compound is a small yard where the women cook meals and the children play.  The man visits the houses of different wives on different night.

This is the Africa of my childhood which I remember-  simple huts, happy children playing in large groups,  women wearing exotic cloths wrapped stylishly over their slim, strong bodies.  I have distinct memories of the shift I noticed in media focused on Africa.  I became aware of  a different Africa on my television and through articles in the newspapers – it must have been the early 1980’s-  there were pictures of starving children,  mothers standing in long queues  holding sickly babies, young boys holding guns,  cots of emaciated men with flies swarming around their eyes-  these were the pictures of the horrible civil wars,  HIV, drought, famine, and child soldiers.   The world was changing and there was a challenge to me living half way around the world in a cozy urban Expat lifestyle in upper crust Knightsbridge, London-  would my generation care – could we reach out to make a difference.   Campaigns for Feed the World, Save the Children, Feed Africa,  etc.  dominated my teenage years .  I would like to think that  we did care, that we did respond appropriately- but a gnawing feeling still bothers me-  did we do enough…?

B - Baule

Some of the practices illustrated in this book- seem ancient and remote.  There are tall tales and myths-   for instance the Baule-  who have a legendary relationship with crocodiles- their queen had to sacrifice her precious son to allow them safe passage across a dangerous river.

T for Tuareg

T for Tuareg

Some of the images are completely unfamiliar to me- I had never heard of the Tuareg people- where the traditional roles of men are in reverse to what we see practiced in other cultures where people wear veils.   The men in this tribe – “peer over their veils- listening with great respect to the poetry and stories of the women.”

U -for Uge

U -for Uge

The Uge people collect Kola nuts-  it’s funny how this word immediately triggered my thoughts to sift through the images searching for the shiny red cans of COKE…which seem to litter contemporary scenes of African tribal life- the imposition of western branding – the ubiquitous littering of LEVI’s,  McDonalds, APPLE, etc…   It was soothing to me to look at these timeless images void of the clutter and without the detritus of our modern lives.  I had to console myself in remembering this is a PICTURE book…

This book won the Caldecott Medal in 1977-

Caldecott medal 1977

Caldecott medal 1977

I immensely enjoyed this book- although it was not particularly approachable- it brought up feelings and memories which I hadn’t accessed for a long time.


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