An interview with Mary and Rich Chamberlin, authors of our June Kenya book "Mama Panya's Pancakes."
Hello friends at Little Global Citizens! We are very happy to have the opportunity to share our thoughts and our book with you. Thank you – Asante sana – for enlightening and teaching our future generations.
Mama Panya’s Pancakes is such a beautiful book and offers a beautiful look into rural Kenyan lifestyle. What prompted you to write it?
Well, let us first say that we’d been writing for some years and always had a dream of publishing many stories. We particularly love writing for kids because they experience the freshness and wonder of life, while simultaneously are willing to delve into fantastical worlds as well as real ones.
I was always interested in Africa since I was a kid. I still have the report I did on Africa in middle school. In college, I took related classes and kept alive my dream of going there some day. And then—ta da!---we did!
I have always considered myself a world citizen. One of the first things we did when I met Mary was look at pictures from an international trip I’d just taken. I knew I’d met my ideal travel partner and as it ended up, my wife as well.
Mary and Rich:
After visiting Kenya and Tanzania, our love of Africa and writing came together to become an expression of story art that helps us grow and learn.
With that said, although the way we live, where we live, and how we live may differ, our humanity knows no cultural differences. Mama Panya’s Pancakes is a story of generosity and community, something that exists across all cultures. We wanted to show this in a positive book on African culture.
Why do you think learning about other cultures important for young children?
It gives the gift of experiencing the richness and traditions of different cultures. In return, we then see that diversity is all around us, and we can more easily understand and interact with one another in this increasingly complex world.
What skills does it build for kids to learn about other cultures/people different from themselves?
It is by learning about our common humanity that we gain understanding which leads to elimination of prejudice. This is the most important thing.
More broadly, multiple topics of learning help build various useful skills. In the non-fiction end-matter from Mama Panya’s Pancakes, we “tapped into” some, hoping to give kids “stepping off” points to explore deeper and further. Examples include: language, geography, social studies, cooking, economics, zoology, and plant life, to name a few.
Here’s a couple of stories of interest about choosing some of the end-matter.
We’d heard that kids, especially in the U.S., were scoring low in geography. This surprised us, as we all have a marvelous planet to explore. So, we made sure a map was included as well as fun facts about Kenya and East Africa.
Also, whenever we travel internationally, we try to learn a bit of the language. When saying hello and good morning to a man in Nairobi, he said, “How is it that you learn my language? Ours is a dying language.” We thought, “How sad is that?” So, we decided to include some Swahili (Kiswahili is speaking the language) in our book. It’s always so much fun to try a new language as many unusual and interesting encounters come from it. Then, to return the favor, to share one’s own language, is equally enjoyable. People everywhere want to know about each other. And usually, they want to know the fun “slang” words as well.
Why are those skills important for children to learn in this day & age?
First, respect. We need to learn about each other, so we can admire and understand everyone. In addition, we need to learn that we are one family and the Earth is our planet, our only home. There is no better place around the corner where we can fly off to. We must unite to keep it pristine, a beautiful garden made of diverse colored flowers. As you may see in our book, this human spirit of oneness and sharing is common to all peoples no matter where they come from. One must do the research to make sure that you are representing the culture correctly, of course.
What lessons did you learn from Kenyan people that you’ve been able to apply to your life?
To find joy in simplicity. To appreciate what we have and celebrate it by presenting it to others. And that, simple kindness should never be underestimated.
What lessons do you think parents can take from how Kenyan families live and spend time together?
To focus on each other, and not so much on material things. In “Mama Panya’s Pancakes”, we explored this a bit with humor as Mama, the adult, worries about not having enough, and Adika, the wise child, knows to just enjoy friendship.
Of course, one should never generalize. Wherever you go, there are always good and bad things. For example, life is often very hard for women and young girls in Kenya and there are many wonderful organizations helping them. There is always something a person can do, big or small to change the world.
What do you love most about Kenya?
Wow, this is a hard question. It’s tough to pick just one thing. We have to say though, from our point of view, that going to Africa is a life changing experience.
When you look out on the plains of the Maasai Mara in Kenya or the Serengeti in Tanzania, it seems as if you can see the edge of the earth. Herds of animals wander across tracts of land, living as they have for eons while at the same time in the city, there are traffic jams. This is a mind-blowing experience. Earth is large, but our planet is also small and shrinking, just ask the astronauts who look down on it from space.
Second, one also sees the harshness of life and death on the plains. But that is the natural way of things.
For us, going to Africa was an experience that placed wonder in our souls, and made us want to return. Some travelers call this “the Mal Afrique,” the urge to someday “come home” to Africa.
Let’s take this opportunity to relate an incident that focuses on the environment. After all these years, it has stuck with us.
We were driving on the plains when we came across a herd of elephants. They were roaming very close in the grasses. Our driver stopped our van and we sat still and silent watching them, no more than twenty feet away. After having only zoo experiences with these animals, it was life changing to encounter them in their natural habitat. One could see the intelligence in their eyes and feel them thinking about who we were and what we might do.
Our talented local African driver told us he would watch the signals and be ready to move out if they got scared or aggressive. When you are in the natural environment, you realize that you are an animal too and must respect the others living there.
The elephants waved their ears and made low grunting noises. Some of the herd started to move off. A large female kept her eyes on us, waving her ears and watching, as her baby stood next to her feeding on tender grasses.
Deciding, or perhaps sensing or trusting that we were not a danger, she did not charge or display any threatening behavior. She just watched us.
With great care and tenderness, she then took her trunk and gently touched her child, guiding the baby underneath her broad stomach between her tree trunk like legs.
We connected eyes and perhaps, in that instant, understood each other on some level. We are all one family.
Then, mama elephant gave a low grumble and slowly turned to guide her child back to the herd.
Even now, all these years later, we think about her and if she survived the hardships of the plains, including human induced ones like poaching and habitat destruction.
We would like to think that global citizens understand these connections between all life and will strive to make this world a better place than when we arrived. Make a difference in whatever way you can. No action is too small and often small actions make huge differences.
Peace, love and happiness to you on your global journey. And thanks for listening and, of course, always reading.
Mary and Rich Chamberlin