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Sala, Mountain Warrior: A Guest Piece by Wakanyi Hoffman

I was born and raised on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya, where the iconic Ngong Hills from the movie Out of Africa grace the horizon. Nearby, the Ngong Forest, a lush haven of indigenous trees and untamed nature, became my childhood playground. This sanctuary nurtured my earliest memories and shaped the storyteller that I would later become.

As a young child, I attended a local primary school nestled in the heart of the forest. Each day, starting at the age of seven, I embarked on a two-mile journey to and from school, forging my path through the wilderness. Looking back, I realised I spent more time engrossed in the forest's wonders than playing with my friends. Those solitary walks through the woods imbued me with a sense of adventure and tranquility, shaping my identity profoundly.

My connection to this forest remains indestructible. I like to think that the tall trees raised me, often offering a hiding place from the odd warthog running through or the monkeys that sometimes stole our school lunches. I spent my formative years exploring many hidden paths, and this routine became an inseparable part of my life, and the forest was a place where I felt free to let my imagination run wild.

As the youngest of five children, my older siblings were already pursuing their studies in secondary school when I was in primary school. It was a lonely childhood, yet peaceful and joyful, as there was never a shortage of discoveries in the forest. The natural landscape became my refuge, a canvas on which I painted stories that would later inspire the story of Sala, Mountain Warrior.

During school holidays, I would be transported to the lush highlands of Mt. Kenya, where my grandmothers resided. Their stories, woven with indigenous wisdom and insight, painted a vivid tapestry of my heritage. The red hills and untamed landscapes provided the backdrop for my explorations, and the teachings of my grandmothers imprinted a deeper understanding of the land's significance in my heart. They shared tales that bridged generations, stories that illuminated the wisdom of our ancestors and painted a rich picture of our cultural legacy.

When I became a mother, my husband and I began living a nomadic lifestyle, traversing continents and cultures. We have so far lived in seven countries on three continents and have four children, all born in different parts of the world. Despite this immersion in diverse environments, I noticed a common thread emerging throughout our children's schools: the scarcity of African stories in children's literature. Determined to fill this void, I embarked on a journey to rewrite African folktales, making them accessible to children worldwide. One such tale was The Legend of the Dancing Baobab Tree, a popular folktale that has travelled across the African continent. Another tale, The Twelve Days of Christmas Safari, infused the familiar carol with an African twist, celebrating the continent's diverse wildlife and inviting readers to envision Christmas through a new lens.

During the tumultuous days of the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020, the idea for Sala, Mountain Warrior was conceived. There was grim news about the plight of marginalised communities, particularly indigenous girls, which ignited a spark within me. I reflected on the challenges these young girls faced-disappearing from the education system, being subjected to harmful practices like forced marriages, and grappling with teenage pregnancies. My mind returned to my childhood aspirations and desires-to play freely and learn without limitations. I was transported to the Samburu community, one of Kenya's last nomadic tribes, where young girls faced a starkly different reality.

Against this backdrop, Sala's story was born. A young Samburu girl, she dared to challenge convention and forge her path. Inspired by my daughters' mountain-climbing adventures in Kenya and recalling tales of my Maasai grandfather's conquests in the wilderness, Sala's quest to conquer a sacred mountain symbolised defiance of societal norms. Her relationship with Grandmother, a character deeply influenced by the matriarchal figures in my life, underscored the importance of intergenerational wisdom. In indigenous communities, the passing down of ancestral knowledge is at risk, threatened by the tide of modernity. Through Sala and Grandmother's bond, I sought to rekindle the flame of tradition, nurturing a connection that spans generations.

The story of Sala isn't merely a narrative-it's a testament to empowerment, resilience, and the relentless pursuit of gender equality. Similar to the deconstruction of the patriarchy in the recent Barbie film, Sala's journey embodies the spirit of courage to defy limitations and break barriers. It reflects my unwavering belief that true gender equality will be achieved when every girl sees herself, her dreams, and her potential reflected in our stories about our shared and common humanity. In the end, Sala, Mountain Warrior is the story of countless girls worldwide who dare to dream, push boundaries, and inspire us all to reach the summit of our aspirations. It's a story of resilience, empowerment, and the enduring power of storytelling to shape lives and transform communities.

In crafting this tale, I hope to inspire little hearts to become the narrators of their stories. Sala, Mountain Warrior is a call to action, an invitation for readers to embrace their inner warriors and dismantle the obstacles that stand in their way. Through this story and my journey as an African wisdom keeper, I aspire to nurture a generation that recognises the power of their dreams and the strength of their voices. Just as Sala embarked on a transformative expedition, I am dedicated to nurturing a world where every child's potential blooms, unfettered by constraints and fuelled by intercultural wisdom and knowledge, to get closer to seeing each other as equal human beings.

Wakanyi Hoffman is a writer and scholar of African Indigenous Knowledge Systems and a global speaker of Ubuntu philosophy. She is currently a Research Fellow at The New Institute Hamburg, bringing ancient African Indigenous Knowledge to the topic of 'conceptions of human flourishing.

Sala, Mountain Warrior, written by Wakanyi Hoffman, illustrated by Onyinye Iwu, published by Otter Barry Books. Out now.


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