Alpha, le petit cireur (Alpha, the shoeshine boy) is one in a series of four picture books by Boubacar 1er Diallo about children in Guinea who work to support their families. Some, like Alpha, shine shoes; others tout for business, sell small items or beg in the street. But, as the cover note and afterword to this picture book explain, life is hard in Guinea as in many African countries. Most of Guinea’s shoeshine boys come from a mountainous region where soil quality is poor and overpopulation a real problem; as a result, many move to the city.
Such is the story of Alpha Mamadou, the main character in this picture book. It is a personal account related in the first person: Alpha starts by introducing himself and immediately the reader is transported to another world. We learn that Alpha is 12-years old and comes from a village called Donghol-Touma (a real location in Guinea). He’s never been to school but is able to read and write from the Koran. The accompanying illustration depicts a simple scene: thatched huts, beaten earth, bright colours, dark skins and an older man in distinctive African clothing.
Alpha has been in the city for three months when we join his story, and he’s been on a steep learning curve. He’s learnt how to shine shoes by observing other children at work. He’s borrowed money to set himself up in business. He’s discovered that work is hard: some clients refuse to pay him, or pay less than they owe. He’s also found out that shoeshine boys lay claim to specific territories, and that outsiders are not welcome. Alpha sleeps on the street and uses some of his hard-earned money to pay for food. And the lifestyle takes its toll on the young boy: he falls ill and all his savings are spent on aiding his recovery.
Boubacar 1er Diallo shows the precarity of Alpha’s existence, but also that of the other children in the city; Alpha is not alone – there are a lot of shoeshine boys eking out a living in the city. The tone of the narrative is matter of fact – Alpha tells life as it is without over dramatizing. Likewise, the illustrations provide an accurate representation of city life as experienced by a shoeshine boy (with distinctive backdrops, characters and activities), but the characters don’t display much in the way of emotion. It is the situations that Alpha encounters that elicit our sympathy.
So, I gave a quiet cheer when Alpha announces that he doesn’t plan to be a shoeshine boy for ever; he has his heart set on saving enough money to open a street stall selling cigarettes and sweets. It might not seem like a huge step up in the world to some readers, but for Alpha it represents the prospect of a comfortable future.
Alpha, le petit cireur provides readers with an insight into the realities of life faced by many children in Guinea. It is an excellent book for prompting discussion about the role of children in different societies and the factors that help to explain these differences.
Alpha, le petit cireur (Alpha, the shoeshine boy) by Boubacar 1er Diallo, illustrated by Robert Koumassadouno (Editions Ganndal, 2008) – title not currently available in English
Boubacar 1er Diallo was born in Labé, Guinea in 1954. He is currently programme manager for the Ministry of Technical Education in Guinea. He also runs writing workshops in libraries and schools. He has written five picture books published by Editions Ganndal.
Robert Koumassadouno has illustrated a number of picture books for Editions Ganndal.