“Jambo Means Hello” weaves its way through the 24 letters of Swahili alphabet by introducing the ritual, cultural celebrations and traditions of the Swahili speaking peoples of East Africa. Swahili and its dialects are spoken by about 45 million people in Kenya, Uganda, Congo, Zaire, Somalia, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique and the Malagasy Republic.
Swahili has no “Q” or “X” sounds, hence 24 as opposed to 26 letters of the traditional English alphabet. The book was written by Muriel Feelings who was born and educated in the United States. For a few years Muriel taught children in East Africa. That experience and the acquired respect and fascination with the East African cultures has manifested in Muriel writing the award-winning book “Moja Means One” followed by “Jambo Means Hello”, both illustrated by her husband Tom Feelings.
Tom was the first African American artist to win a Caldecott Honor for his illustrations for “Moja Means One” and then again for “Jambo Means Hello”. Despite the seeming simplicity of the sepia toned illustrations his process is meticulous and complex. He paints on board, starting with water-soluble black ink pen, followed by application of the white water-based tempera paint. Wet tissue paper is applied to the board next causing ink and tempera to run together and create unpredictable interesting patterns and shapes in the lighter colored areas; the artist then builds up the darker areas until the right mood is captured. The resulting art has both strength and subtlety to it that the publishers find challenging to reproduce in print.
Starting with a wedding ceremony, the alphabetically structured journey takes us through the rituals of worship, drum dance, playing traditional music instruments and engaging in traditional arts and crafts. Young generation is shown being taught respect for elders as well as learning to build homes and tools, raise crops, cook and make handicrafts. The environment is introduced through plants, domestic and wild animals important for the community’s environmentally harmonious survival and vitality.
Upon reaching the last letter of this alphabet book I couldn’t help feeling as if I’ve just met this beautiful welcoming community in person.
For other Alphabet books reviews click on this link.