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Of Vanishing Villages and Round and Square Houses: A 2-in-1 Ann Grifalconi Special

Myra here.

Gather round, my people, gather round!
And hear the voices of your ancestors
in this tale of courage and sacrifice.
“The Village that Vanished”

I have always been fascinated by the dynamism and power of the oral tradition in passing on knowledge, history, values, and one’s ancestral heritage – the magic of storytelling and weaving words together that makes one’s eyes close and one’s heart open. These two beautiful books by Ann Grifalconi do just that – making us realize that not too long ago, the need for a village to vanish had to happen and why round and square houses come to be the way they are.

I got this from our very own NIE Library

Buy The Village That Vanished on Amazon | Book Depository

The Power of Prayer and the Cruelty of Men. The book begins with a prayer:

“Oh, my ancestor spirits!
Oh, my grandmothers,
Oh, my father, sister spirits!
Hear me now in our need!
I hear your ancestor voices
Singing in the grass, the trees,
In the winds, the waters…
I need your magic!
Do not deny me now!
Lend me and my children
The secrecy of the crocodile below your waters!
Oh, my ancestor spirits,
We need your magic now!
Protect our village,
Keep us free!

And so begins the tale of young Abikanile (her Yao name means “listen”) and her mother Njemile (which means “upstanding” in Yao) and their village who would have to leave their homeland because:

The slavers were coming!

In this lovely artwork by Kadir Nelson we have a sense of why Njemile is named such (her being “upstanding” clearly illustrated) and the active listening ear of Abikanile – and yes the slavers in the background

Njemile explains to young Abikanile that

‘These are violent men from the north… They come riding in swiftly on horseback, shooting their long guns, capturing unarmed farmers as they go!”

Historical Background and the Triangle Trade. When I did a websearch on the Yao people I found out that the Yao is a major ethnic and linguistic group whose origins could be traced to the East of Lake Malawi to a mountain called Yao which is said to be near the grass covered hills between Mwembe and Luchilingo Range. To know more about their society, language, and livelihood, click on this comprehensive link that details all these things and more.

Lake Malawi in Africa, click on the image to be taken to the websource

Goods and provisions are said to come from two main sources in early American settlement. These two main sources are England and Africa which came to be known as the Triangular or Triangle Trade.

Try to find where Abikanile’s home could be found. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

This helpful web source (entitled Social Studies for Kids) shows that the usual shipment of goods from Great Britain would consist of cloth, rum, salt, hardware or weapons which would then be traded for people who were enslaved as soon as the shipment goes to Africa – the home town and village of our Njemile and her people. When Abikanile asked her mother why the slavers “picked on us?” Her mother replied:

“We are a strong people, and hardworking!” Njemile had answered passionately. “They want to sell our labor! Our people are put in chains and sold into slavery to foreign masters!”

Stony Silence and Sacrifice and The Intangibles of Home. Njemile the Upstanding has thought of an ingenious way to hide themselves from the slavers. At a time of crisis when all the strong young men are gone and no one to defend the village, Njemile recommended with “quiet force” that “We must retreat – disappear like smoke!”

Njemile convincing the people to disappear “like smoke” into the forest

In order for the Yao people to survive, they would have to remove all traces of their village, tear down their homes and huts, pack their essentials, and retreat into the deep forest where they shall live until the men with the guns pass. It was the oldest of the elders Chimwala’s stony resolve and her breaking her silence which convinced the people to follow Njemile. Chimwala (whose name means “stone”) is Abikanile’s grandmother. However, no amount of persuasion could get her to leave with them:

“I am too slow and old to leave my home! I will remain with my house and our ancestors. The slavers will not take me! Am I not too old and mean? Is it not said: ‘The Crocodile will not eat old wrinkled adder snake?'”

And so the people took their own homes apart “stick by stick, stone by stone” – they either buried the sticks and stones or scattered them in the woods

It makes one reflect on the things that make up our homes, the things that we [think we] value, the everyday materials that we possess and buy that clutter our little space in this universe – which among these things will we take with us when we need to pack up and leave so that we can survive?

The Yao people retreating into the shadows of the trees

Believing that leads to seeing. The worst is yet to come, however, since the villagers would need to cross the river to get to the deeper part of the forest. This is a huge problem since being farmers, they do not swim and they have no boats. How could they possibly cross safely?

The beautiful and courageous Abikanile chanting her prayer, testing the waters, and seeing the stones that were to be their salvation

It was Abikanile who was “shown” the path that will save the villagers. It was more difficult, though for grown ups who lacked the inner child’s eye to see things that have always been there all along – their vision cloudy as caused by their inability to hear the ancestors’ spirits: “Lacking faith, they saw no stones.”

It was Njemile’s words which brought the villagers back to reality:

“Have we no shame at all? Are we too afraid to follow? Does it take the sacrifice of an old woman and the bravery of a small child to teach us how to behave?”

Young Abikanile who “listens” and her mother Njemile the Upstanding

It is this beauty of crossing over; the staunch and stony resolve and sacrifice of an old woman; the leadership of an upstanding woman; and the quiet, listening ear of a child that saved this little village from the cruelty of the slavers with guns firing shots “to frighten all into submission.” All these things and more make this picture book a worthwhile read not only to young children but to anyone who is interested in history, the realities of slavery, and in celebrating people’s multicultural heritage and ancestry. For more teacher resources, click on this link to be taken to discussion guides and possible activities that you can do inside the classroom to further enrich your sharing of The Vanishing Village with your students (or even with your own children) as shared by TeacherVision.

Aren’t libraries the best? A Caldecott Honor book by Ann Grifalconi

Buy The Village Of Round And Square Houses on Amazon | Book Depository

In this picture book illustrated and written by Ann Grifalconi, we are introduced to the village of Tos – found in the remote hills of the Cameroons in Central Africa. In the introduction given by the author, she noted that

It is almost entirely isolated, with no paved roads closer to it than a full eight hours away. None but the most adventurous visitor would dare risk the steep and bumpy, rocky clay paths leading to the thatch-roofed village that clings to the side of an almost extinct volcano.

Ann Grifalconi’s art work simply inspires. Let us listen to the story of this young girl who shares with us how men came to live in square houses and women in round ones.

It is such a privilege then to get to know this lovely village of round and square houses through the colorful artwork done by Grifalconi herself. We do not need to take on the trip through rocky clay paths to get to know this place, this picture book effectively takes us there through the power of the written word and dabs of paint.

A Visit from the Men and the Rituals that Make up our Lives. The first few pages of the book provide us with a vivid description of the little things that provide stability and routine to this little town in the village of Tos which lies at the foot of Naka mountain in the Bameni Hills of West Africa.

Every evening, after a day of work in the fields- Uncle Domo and Gran’pa Oma came to our round house for supper. We children would hurry to put out the low, wooden stool for Gran’pa Oma (For he was the eldest, and closer to the ancestor spirits). Then we would unroll the grass mat for Uncle Domo, the next oldest, as was only proper and respectful.

The women would then prepare the dishes as the men would ask each of the children (as they sit on “those high and bony knees” one after the other) what they have learned during the day.

The young ones helping to carry the meals in the table

The rituals and the tradition are clearly highlighted in the story:

Gran’pa, as the eldest, would always eat first,
Dipping the first three fingers of one hand into the fou-fou –
Scooping up a small portion which he dipped quickly into the stew bowl,
To flavor each bite with the spicy meat and juices!
Then, in order of age – Gran’ma, Uncle Domo, and sometimes Mama
(If she left the cook fire) would finish their meal in the same way,
And we children would follow last – making sure to leave the bowl clean!

This alone is powerful enough to introduce cultural rituals, food preparation and sharing of meals with one’s class or with one’s child. Teasing out parallel and divergent elements given the child’s or student’s own culture would be a lovely way to begin.

After supper, the men are said to return to their square houses. It was during this time that Gran’ma Tika is said to smoke her tobacco, sitting alone in the moonlight, “looking up at the dark slope of Naka Mountain, rising high above..”












Gran’ma Tika puffing away while staring quietly at the all-powerful Naka Mountain



The Power of Nature and how things came to be. Gran’ma Tika shared that while they are currently living in peace with “Mother Naka and the spirits of our ancestors” it was not always this way. In her storyteller voice, she related that there was a time when Old Naka “spoke to them, shouting her anger to the skies, as red rivers of lava flowed down her sides.”

The villagers emerging from out of the ashes of Naka’s fury

Despite this huge display of anger and power, the people remained unharmed.  The aftermath of the volcanic eruption, however, has left all of them covered with ashes, nearly indistinct from each other:

Everyone looked like a gray ghost-
No one knew who stood next to them
Or who came behind…
So they stood there –
Trembling with fear-
But grateful to be alive:
Naka had spared them!

Moreover, when the villagers came out of the burned-out village, only two houses were left standing: one square house and one round. And so the village chief who was intent on rebuilding their village segregated the people the quickest way he knew how:

He pointed to the ash-covered people:
‘You! Tall gray things!
You go live in the square house!’
‘And you! Round gray things-
Go live in the round house!’
‘And you! Small gray things over there!
You go pick the small gray stones out of the fields
So we can plant our crops again!”

And so, life the way they knew it, came to be.

The women came to live with the children preparing food for everyone; while the men lived in square houses planting yams and corn

Gran’ma Tika explained that while it started out as a directive from the village chief, the women enjoyed staying together, talking, laughing and singing; whereas the men have also become used to living together and relaxing in their own spaces.

“So you see, Osa, we live together peacefully here-

Because each one has a place to be apart, and a time to be together…”

She took me by the hand and turned back to the round house.

“And that is how our way came about and will continue –

‘Til Naka speaks again!”

This book, while considered to be an African folk tale, has its roots in actual events that transpired years and years ago. Click on this link to be taken to a teacher resource that details how the book can be used inside the classroom, what activities and discussion points can be shared with students and possibly your own children as well.

Lovely books any child should feel privileged to read

The Magic of Storytellers. Both books illustrate the power of oral tradition in passing down stories and tales. In The Village that Vanished, the Author’s note shared that the elder (or a professional folk teller called a griot) would usually weave these stories around an outdoor fire with the children gathered round. In The Village of Round and Square Houses, we have Osa’s grandmother who was described to be “best storyteller in the whole village” telling us how things came to be the way they are in the Village of Tos. It is indeed sad that this tradition is rapidly disappearing with the presence of ipads, internet, and 4d animated movies. Makes me mourn for a time lost and forgotten.

It takes a Village to Raise a Child and Build a Home. More than anything, these two books also reinforce the age-old adage ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ To that, I add the phrase ‘build a home’ since as could be seen in the narratives, it is this sense of community and the knowledge of our inner connectedness with each other – transcending the notion of blood, kinship, and color – that unites us in time of tragedies, natural calamities, and the unexpected tides of misfortune – making us reflect and realize what the true essence of ‘home’ is.

The author-illustrator Ann Grifalconi is said to have illustrated over 75 books over the years for other authors and has illustrated over a dozen picture books of her own. She has also traveled extensively in Africa, the Americas and the Pacific. She has also received a great deal of recognition for her work including the Caldecott Honor (for the The Village of Round and Square Houses) and the Jane Addams Children’s Book award (for The Vanishing Village).

The cadence of Ann Grifalconi’s writing is superbly matched by Kadir Nelson’s

Kadir Nelson’s studio from the Union-Tribune. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

breathtaking illustrations in The Vanishing Village. I first learned about Kadir Nelson when I reviewed Will Smith’s Just the Two of Us (review can be found here) when we did our Picture Books that Sing theme a year ago. Fats’ review of Coretta Scott yesterday (as could be seen here) also highlight beautiful paintings done by Kadir Nelson (goes to show that we are such fans indeed). To know more about him, click here to be taken to his website.

PictureBook Challenge Update: 19/20 of 72

PoC Reading Update: 12/13 of 25

Reading the World Update: 2 of 6, Picture Book/fiction, Africa

5 comments on “Of Vanishing Villages and Round and Square Houses: A 2-in-1 Ann Grifalconi Special

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