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Grandfather's Work: A Traditional Healer in Nigeria


by Ifeoma Onyefulu

In Grandfather's Work, an unnamed boy enumerates his family members, examining each person's job:
  • Grandmother is a seamstress who sews beautiful clothes for special occasions, including a chief's robes.  She is pleased with her work.
  • Father teaches grown-ups in a school.  He is very clever.
  • Mother owns a bakery.  She buys flour and salt for the bread and employs five bakers to make her delicious bread.
  • "Uncle Law . . . goes to work at a place called the High Court. . . . When someone is in trouble, Uncle Law stands up and speaks for them in Court.  He really cares about people."
  • "Auntie Ngo is a doctor who "knows about all kinds of illness . . . Now she helps people, especially women, get better."
Onyefulu inserts a textual refrain following every second family member and their job descriptions.  The refrain follows a two-step, similar-but-different formula:  Grandfather's work is similar to that of his family members.  His work makes him happy, too; he also loves his work; he cares about and helps people.  But Grandfather's work is different from that of other family members.
The boy thinks his grandfather is a magician.  "No," grandfather smiles, picking up his staff.  The staff "shows I am only a messenger.  I carry healing messages to sick people."  Grandfather is a native healer who uses leaves, roots and bark to heal people's illnesses.
Grandfather relates how, when he was a boy, his grandmother taught him about the healing power of the plants and trees.  The boy yearns to be like his Grandfather and learn the healing work.  Now Grandfather is ready to pass along this tradition to his grandson.  The two make plans to go the next day into the forest to begin the boy's education.
Onyefulu's beautifully printed and composed photographs punctuate, highlight, and illustrate her text.  The photos show the care and pride each family member takes in his or her work.  Close-ups of the plants show texture and fine detail.  The text, told in first person narrative, hints at an oral tradition put down on paper.  The words have a rhythm and cadence that is almost musical in nature.
In an "Author's note" - placed before the story begins - the author tells her own history.  Her grandfather, who lived in eastern Nigeria, was a man "whose knowledge of plants, roots, tree-barks, and animals was vast. . . . [He] helped many sick people and was well known as a healer."  A map on the same page points out Nigeria's location in Africa.
An afterword, "A note about Grandfather's plants," tells the reader about the various plants mentioned in the story.  The note describes the field of "ethnobotany" and how scientists are coming to understand that the plants used in traditional medicine are truly effective in treating illnesses.
To Onyefulu, as a child, her grandfather's work was "pure magic."  One can understand that a child could be awestruck by the work a parent or grandparent does - especially when the work seems so important as helping people.  However, Onyefulu's choice of the word magic is unfortunate.  Onyefulu wants the reader to respect Grandfather's work, yet the use of the word magic places Grandfather's effective way of treating sickness into a mystical realm.  Look up the word magic in a copy of Roget's Thesaurus, and you will find the word under key words deception and sorcery.  None of magic's companion nouns under sorcery  has a positive sense; the synonyms listed include occult, necromancy, witchcraft, conjuration and  enchantment.  While Grandfather's work might indeed have a quality of mysticism in it, the use of the word magic gives a pejorative tone to what the author obviously means to be a loving and respectful look at her grandfather's work.
Despite this usage, Grandfather's Work is a beautifully executed work that will help the reader to understand the people and traditions of Africa and, in particular, Nigeria.  Because of the nature of the story, Onyefulu's photographs show Nigerians doing things they do in their daily work life.  The photographs realistically depict settings (school; bakery); clothing (indigenous; attorney with black robe and wig); and hand crafting tools, decorations, and household items (uncle carving; aunt forming and baking clay pots; another uncle forging steel into tools, such as hoes).  The photographs also show glimpses of lush forests and grasslands.  There is one photographic "blooper."  Two photographs that are supposed to be consecutive show Grandfather in different attire.
After reading Onyefulu's "Author's note," one might wonder whether the people depicted in the book are her relatives (a reference to her grandfather as "the late" David Ekwensi tells us that Onyefulu's true grandfather is deceased).  Peterson[i] provides an answer:  The  "photographs, which give the fictional story the look of fact, provide youngsters with a glimpse of life in a close-knit African village where centuries-old traditions intermingle with familiar modern culture."
[i] Peterson, Lauren. 1998. Review of Grandfather's work: A traditional healer in Nigeria. Booklist 95 (9-10): 889.
Onyefulu, Ifeoma. 1998. Grandfather's work: A traditional healing in Nigeria. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press. ISBN 0-7613-0412-6
This review was written for a graduate course in Library and Information Studies at Texas Woman's University, International Literature for Children and Young Adults.

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