Crab, Tortoise and Spider are some of the many animals who live in the Zongo lagoon. Once the waters were clear and clean, but when Spider becomes a major polluter, his friends know they have to act.
Once, many animals lived in the Zongo lagoon, including three best friends, Crab, Tortoise and Spider. The waters were clear and clean, nature thrived, and life was good. But Spider shows no respect for the lagoon. He throws his rubbish into the water, first organic waste, then plastic bottles and cans, and later the waste from his mining operations. He pays no attention to the havoc he is wreaking on the natural environment. So, Crab and Tortoise decide to act. They invite Spider to dinner and serve him a meal that shows him the error of his ways. Full of remorse, Spider works hard to return the lagoon to its former state. He also has the final word: ‘The lagoon’s water is sacred. It belongs to no one and everyone at the same time . . . We must keep it clean every single day.’
This is a book with a powerful environmental message, but Gizo-Gizo! doesn’t come across as a lecture; it is a fun story too that is accessible to readers of all ages. Crab, Tortoise and Spider have clearly defined personalities. Crab is a generous, hardworking fisherman; the lagoon is his livelihood as well as his home. Tortoise is a wise, patient healer who concocts medicines from roots and leaves. Both have a strong connection to – and respect for – the natural environment. Spider, however, does not. He is a greedy, lazy, selfish and ambitious mine owner, who believes he can do whatever he wants. I was glad when he got his comeuppance, although I wouldn’t necessarily recommend serving fish from polluted waters to make a point. (It worked though, didn’t it?!)
The illustrations are striking, featuring a bright, bold palette of turquoise, orange, red and black. Double spreads reveal the flora, fauna and local settlements that depend on the lagoon as well as the impact of Spider and his polluting ways. The turquoise waters fill with rubbish and turn brown and grey as his mining operations take off – a strong visual reinforcement of the text. Animals are anthropomorphised throughout with a particular focus on the three main protagonists. I particularly like wise, concerned Tortoise.
There is a distinct Ghanaian flavour to this story. The text is sprinkled with references that would be familiar to Ghanaian readers, such as the Moringa tree, Bozobo flowers and kenkey (a dish of fermented maize). A few words in Hausa, which is spoken in many parts of West Africa, also feature. International readers need not worry, however; the references are nearly all obvious in context, and a helpful glossary is provided at the back. The back matter also includes an introduction to the Zongo Story Project, where readers will learn that Gizo-Gizo! was inspired by a true story from the Cape Coast zongo (network of Islamic communities) in Ghana. Guided by Emily Williamson, students and teachers from the zongo recalled their experiences when dirty water from mining companies upstream polluted their lakes and rivers. Over a period of several years, their combined input shaped the story that has become Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon.
This is a story about the community by the community, but its core message is universal: we should respect the environment and one another. Truly, a picture book for our times.
Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon by Emily Williamson with the students and teachers of the Hassaniyya Quranic School in Cape Coast, Ghana (Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2016)
Emily Williamson is a PhD student in Anthropology at Boston University, US. She has worked, studied and travelled in Ghana for many years. During work on a sanitation project in Cape Coast, she carried out a series of educational workshops with students and teachers at the Hassaniyya Quranic School. With their input, the story that became Gizo-Gizo! took shape.
Gizo-Gizo! A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon was awarded best book for young people in the 2017 Children’s Africana Book Awards. It also features in the IBBY Honour List 2018.