Lynne Barasch's First Come the Zebra
Children's book review by Justine Greer
First Come the Zebra chronicles an unlikely friendship, blossoming in spite of the conflict between rival communities, and set against a backdrop of African grazers' annual migration from Tanzania to Kenya. The watercolour and ink illustrations are pretty, spare and soft; they give nothing more than what is presented in the text but add decoration and atmosphere to a lovely and important little story.
Abaani is a young Maasai boy charged with tending his family's cattle herd. One day he notices another boy, Haki, whose family is of the Kikuyu farmers, selling produce from a roadside stand.
Niceties are exchanged, at which point Abaani takes it upon himself to inform Haki of all the ways his people, the Kikuyu, are inferior and detrimental to the Maasai. Haki responds in kind.
Not exactly the traditional start to a beautiful friendship.
The children are merely echoing the condemnations of their respective elders, lacking as they do a true understanding of each other's personal story. What Abaani and Haki do understand, however, is that each boy represents something offensive, something the other is expected to dislike.
Fair warning: Abaani becomes so angry here that he advances on Haki with a stick held aloft, wishing it were a spear. Not a violent scene per se, since no actual beatdown occurs, but the implied aggression does provide opportunity for a heart-to-heart regarding more appropriate expressions of anger.
As time passes, Abaani and Haki continue with their separate ventures, cattle herding and veggie-selling respectively -- but they take notice of each other.One day Abaani gives Haki a tentative wave, which is returned.
When the boys are thrown together in defense of a baby in trouble, they devise a way to work together and their cooperation saves the day! Each privately admires the other's quick thinking and athletic prowess, but says nothing.
When Abaani and Haki begin to play a game together, they also begin to talk and joke a little, which prompts the lovely line: "Slowly they have come to know each other."
They decide to trade between themselves, some of Haki's fruits and vegetables for some of Abaani's milk; they confide hopes for their Maasai and Kikuyu communities to manifest peace in their interactions as the boys themselves have been able to do.
By the book's conclusion, Abaani has formed his own opinion of this boy whom he is expected to abhor, and no longer spews the hate-speech of his elders.
Tension between the human groups is contrasted nicely with the peaceable way that migrating animals (zebra, wildebeest and Thomson's gazelle) share the same grassland -- even the same blades of grass!
The peaceful animals and humans in conflict provide a successfully child-friendly juxtaposition. End-pages delineate the author's own visit to Kenya, and offer background information on the Maasai and Kikuyu peoples.
First Come the Zebra represents first and foremost an opportunity to discuss the concepts of prejudice and empathy with young readers, in an entirely accessible way: these are imperative lessons for any child whose parents wish for him or her to become a decent human being.
Barasch asserts that it is the youth of the world who are the greatest hope for our future. Understanding, consideration and mutual respect are bywords for progress and positive change, while remaining mired in deep-seated bias brings nothing but more of the same.
All in all First Come the Zebra is a winning treatment of potentially tricky subject matter.
Best Children's Books - Find, Read or Write home page.