CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM
by DINAH ORJI
Published by Dinosaur Books
Key words: fiction, history, adventure, Africa, Benin, adoption/fostering
Age range: 8 – 11 ish
Busy teacher? Skip to the bottom of the page for the summary.
What do you know about the history of Africa? If you’ve had a typical British education with no family links to the continent, probably not much. Growing up in Libya I saw the evidence of diverse cultures and complex, long-lasting civilisations all around me. It seemed too obvious to mention that there were and had always been connections and networks, stretching from Europe to North Africa and over the Sahara to rest of the continent. But when I went back to school in Britain that perspective simply melted away. Africa was only mentioned, in history lessons, as a place that Europeans went to, to ‘explore’, ‘discover’ and so on, as if the continent had come into being at the point Europeans reached it, and purely for their convenience. The idea of Africa existing entire in itself; having its own civilisations that rose and fell, traded and warred with each other, made art and weapons without help or hindrance from European states, was never mentioned – if anything, there was a vague suggestion that Africa was wilderness.
Of course, there were plenty of African civilisations throughout history. One of the most magnificent was the Benin Kingdom of Dinah Orji’s title. The author explains in one of her useful historical notes at the back of the book, that ‘Benin’ isn’t a name that her characters would have recognised – but it is the most recognisable to readers in Britain who may have heard of the Benin bronzes. This is also the term used on the National Curriculum which suggests study of Benin from 900 – 1300 AD as a topic for Key Stage 2.
The main character is Ada, a girl who has grown up on the fringes of the powerful Edo people’s land. Ada has always known she was adopted, but not the true secret of her birth. When she discovers that secret, it puts her in great danger at the hands of the Edo sky king, considered a living god with enormous power and authority. But with her quick wits and the help of friends, she manages to survive a dangerous journey along the river and into the forest, through the lands of hostile chiefs, and find her true home. The book’s storytelling voice means it feels written as Ada herself would have told it to her friends, looking back. The danger, at the hands of men as well as animals, makes the story feel authentic as well as exciting. This is not a wilderness being pierced by an explorer, the sole human figure in the landscape. Nor is it the sort of book where native animals are lingered over by the author with more interest and affection, than they spend on native humans. Ada and her friends travel through a real, living society with politics, power struggles, traitors and heroes.
In the story of royal children forced into exile, I hear echoes of legends and folk tales that go back a long way. One name that came to mind was Perseus, who in Greek myth was the son of Zeus (a sky god). His mother, Danae, was thrown out as Ada’s is, and Perseus eventually returns a hero, just as Ada does. The Mediterranean is an African sea as much as a European one, and Mediterranean myths – if you pull at the vine of them – often turn out to have roots and shoots in Africa. Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores the fact that Andromeda (a woman rescued by Perseus from a sea monster) was described by Greeks as an Aethopian – or African – princess. https://www.theroot.com/was-andromeda-black-1790874592 . I would be fascinated to know more about these connections and if they have any relationship to the story. Mostly though, I’m just thrilled to be seeing more fiction for all ages exploring African history. CHILDREN OF THE BENIN KINGDOM will be a great addition to any child’s bookshelf.
Where to get it:
I bought this book from Ayesha at Mirror Me Write, a start-up selling diverse children’s books, and it came with some gorgeous stickers!
A well-researched, exciting and accessible historical adventure set in 12th century Benin, suitable for KS2 and lower KS3. There’s a strong heroine. As well as reading it for pleasure, it can be used to support primary history teaching: (National curriculum KS2: Benin (West Africa) c. AD 900-1300). There’s also an opportunity to discuss parallels with Greek myths. Useful historical notes at the back. More resources:
Images and text about the Benin Bronzes online: (https://www.britishmuseum.org/about-us/british-museum-story/objects-news/benin-bronzes )
Episode 4: Cities. in Africa’s Great Civilisations currently on BBC4 iplayer (September 2020). (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0b5b4vy/episodes/guide)