Mayowa doesn’t want to visit his grandmother, but then he discovers the great outdoors has much to offer, especially with a new friend to show him around. Plus, it’s masquerade season!
Mayowa starts this story in a sulk. He wants to play computer games all day, but instead has to visit his grandmother in another town, Ilisan. Fortunately, his bad mood does not last for long. His grandmother has arranged for her neighbour’s son Denuyi to show him around, and she also announces that the masquerades are coming out that day.
Denuyi positively radiates energy and excitement, with his huge white-toothed grin, outstretched arms and leaping feet. He takes Mayowa on a tour of his neigbourhood and, together, they share in its simple wonders: a grasshopper sitting on Denuyi’s hand, dipping their hands and feet in a cool stream, seeing a sow and her piglets. And then, of course, they experience the masquerades, an important part of Nigerian cultural heritage.
Denuyi explains what the masquerades are to his new friend from the city, and we, as the reader, also benefit: “They are our ancestors. During the festival they return to our world to dance with their loved ones.” The story builds to a crescendo as sound, sight and movement come together – the boys hear, approach, see and join the masquerades. I loved the description of them dancing: “The boys jiggled their limbs and nodded their heads … waved their arms and wiggled their waists…” And then, suddenly, we are left with nothing. The following page is almost bare; the two boys are lost and alone. The drama is soon resolved with the help of a friendly local, however, and Mayowa spends some time with his grandmother before heading back to the city, a contented smile on his face.
I relished the references to local culture that feature throughout this story. Women sell food by the roadside, the boys eat the fruits of the ye-ye tree, Mayowa’s parents load their car boot with plantain, beans, dried fish and unripe mango before their journey home. The vivid ink and watercolour illustrations reinforce the cultural aspect, with men and women in brightly-coloured traditional dress, elaborate masquerade costumes and masks, earthy ground, and snippets of local scenery.
The characters in the story are endearing, with their beaming grins and joie-de-vivre. I would say 90% of the book is smiles. But I also particularly enjoyed the quieter moments shared by Granny and Mayowa as the story, the day and the visit draw to a close. Granny shows her grandson the birds going to sleep in the trees and partridge pea plants closing their leaves as the evening approaches. Such a lovely couple of pages – I wanted more!
Mayowa and the Masquerades is a joyful and light-hearted picture book about a boy’s discovery of life outside the big city. The story celebrates the simplicity and beauty of nature and the vibrancy of the masquerades. It is a wonderful starting point for learning a little about – and experiencing – Nigerian culture, colour and traditions.
Mayowa and the Masquerades, by Lola Shoneyin, illustrated by Francis Blake (Cassava Republic Press UK edition, 2016)
Lola Shoneyin is a poet and author. She has written three books of poems, two children’s books and an award-winning novel The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives. She is the founder and director of the annual Aké Arts and Book Festival held in southwest Nigeria. In April 2014, she was named on the Hay Festival’s Africa39 list of the most promising 39 Sub-Saharan African authors under the age of 40. As a child, she spent the festive seasons in Ilisan-Remo with her family.
Francis Blake is an illustrator who works in ink and watercolour. His artwork has featured in magazines, books and advertising campaigns in many countries. He lives in London.