Monday, August 6, 2018

One Voice Can Change the World

Guest Post by Kathryn Erskine

It’s true ... with incredible determination and persistence, one person really can change the world. I was introduced to the voice of Miriam Makeba, dubbed Mama Africa, during the oppressive apartheid regime. Despite danger to herself and family, she told the world about the atrocities in her country. Singing was her art and talent, and using that, she forced the world to look at what was happening in South Africa, and to do something about it. We may not have her gifts, but we can all be brave. We can all speak out and change the world.

Young people often feel unheard. As a child, especially a girl in the 1960’s and ‘70’s, I took heart that a woman could speak out and that people would actually listen. I loved that she forced everyone to look at, and deal with, what was happening to her people –and not just in South Africa, but in the United States, and anywhere in the world. Her voice gave me hope that I could have a voice, too. I wanted to give that same feeling of empowerment to young readers today.

To that end, here are some writing activities you can use with Mama Africa:

1. Use Miriam’s story as a jumping off point to learn more about her or one of the other people mentioned in the book, like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald. Also, see the timeline and Further Reading sections for more ideas, e.g., Fannie Lou Hamer and John Lewis. What contributions did these people make? What do you think was most important, and why? If you could ask one of these people a question, what would you ask?

2. What is an issue you feel strongly about? How would you use your voice to tell the world? In today’s world, unlike Miriam Makeba’s during the mid-twentieth century, what avenues do you have available to get your message out?

3. Mama Africa can also be used as an introduction to apartheid, and other oppressive regimes, and how such regimes can be called out and, eventually, brought down. What is happening in the world today that is similar to a tyrannical government like South Africa’s under apartheid? What do you think is an effective way to stop that regime?

And, any of the above activities can be written in the call-and-response style used in the book, either as a song or free verse poem, where the last word of the preceding line is also the first word in the following line.
An example from the book:
Still, that doesn’t stop Miriam from singing.
Singing always gives her strength.

Mama Africa: How Miriam Makeba Spread Hope with Her Song, was named a 2018 Best Book for Young Children by CABA, Children’s Africana Book Awards.  It was also the 2018 Coretta Scott King John Steptoe Award winner.

Kathryn Erskine is the author of six novels for young people, including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and most recently, The Incredible Magic of Being, about a boy with anxiety who believes in the power of the universe to save us. She also recently wrote an award-winning picture book, Mama Africa, a biography of South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba.  Kathryn Erskine draws on her life stories and world events for her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books.  Visit her at

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