by Vivian Nneka Nwajiaku
A prophet is not without honour except in his own home.
As children, a good number of us spent our leisure reading foreign books. We revelled in Enid Blyton’s imaginary worlds and chorused the moral lessons she taught us through her stories. We travelled to Wonderland and Narnia. We learned, in a foreign language, that we should never stray too far from home so that we would never end up like Hansel and Gretel. These are stories we are yet to forget, and their writers are just as famous as the books. But with the exception of a handful of authors, the indigenous writers who blessed our childhood with beautiful children’s books seem to have been long forgotten, and their stories rarely grace our tongues. One of such writers is Kola Onadipe, the author who gave us ‘Sugar Girl’.
Born Nathaniel Kolawole Onadipe in Ijebu-Ode, Ogun state, Nigeria, he studied Law at the University of London and opened a law firm with his close friend Abraham Adesanya. The author lived most of his life for children. Not only did he write captivating children books, he had fifteen children of his own and was also famous for being a staunch disciplinarian and a principal of Olu-Iwa College (the school with which Ijebu-Ode Secondary Commercial School was merged to become Adeola Odutola College).
What most people do not know is that Kola Onadipe lived from the 14th of July 1922 to the 4th of December 1981. In essence, our beloved Sugar Girl is much older than we thought. Sugar Girl was published in Nairobi in 1964. The lucky ones who read Sugar Girl remember the very first sentence of the book: Her name was Ralia, but people called her sugar girl. We remember that she had a dog, that she was from a poor home, and that her mother was blind. Some of us can still hear her lovely voice which we never actually heard. We remember those steps she took in following that bird, those steps that took her far from home and into the hands of Awaya the witch and then, the hands of the hunter. And we’ll never forget the two most important lessons we learned in that book. First, never get so distracted that you lose your way. Second, if you go to the market, don’t throw stones; it may hit your mother. I was eight years old when I read that book. I have not read it for a second time (I am never really able to read one book twice unless I have to write a book review on it). Yet, I remember details that I usually would not—I will have you know that I don’t remember some of the characters of The Wizard of Oz even though I read both The Wizard of Oz and Who Stole the Wizard of Oz.
Kola Onadipe had other books many of which were our parents’ favourites. There was Koku Baboni, the book about the twin boy who was left to die in the forest during the period when twins were still being killed in parts of Nigeria and the woman who loved and raised him as her own. Koku Baboni was almost as popular, if not as popular, as Sugar Girl. Other books were The Boy Slave, The Magic Land of the Shadows, Sunny Boy, Sweet Mother, The Return of Shettima, The Forest is Our Playground, Halima Must Not Die: and Other Plays for Schools, Beloved Daughters, A Pot of Gold, and a number of others.
Kola Onadipe was gold to our country’s literature. Whether people realize it or not is another story. We have the tendency to crave foreign things in our quest for exposure, and there is no problem with that unless and until we so crave foreign things that we forget what is ours. And when we do remember our own authors, we remember the giants like Chinua Achebe—which is totally fine—but either forget or fail to realize that writers of children’s literature are just as important, if not more important, than other authors. After all, they help shape the minds of the children who own the future.
Children do not buy their books themselves. The parents and other adults who buy books for their children and wards should re-introduce the books written by our unsung heroes into the reading collections of these children. Enid Blyton’s books are exciting and Disney princesses are wonderful. The Arabian Nights provide exposure. They are all welcome because they teach children moral lessons as books ought to. But they teach these lessons in foreign contexts. While we expose our children to new worlds and ideas, we must never be so distracted that we lead them far from home.