2020 Wakini Kuria Award for Children’s Literature: A Dialogue with Halieo Motanyane
Halieo Motanyane is a Mosotho girl, born and raised in Lesotho. She is a filmmaker by profession and a writer by passion. In the field of film, she works as a contract employee for National Television of Lesotho, as a studio personnel. She is also a volunteer at UNESCO Lesotho where she is a member of GEM Institute, which aims to support and promote women working in the fields of Film, Fashion, Farming, and Technology. She is the team leader of the film department for 2020/2021. She specializes in scriptwriting and editing.
As a writer, she writes short stories and Children’s stories. Her first story to be published was called “Fake Eyelashes” which won the fifth position on Outcast magazine in July 2018. Since then she has frequently published with the South African online magazine Fundza. Her other stories can be found on the online monthly magazine of Writers Space Africa, where she is a member. Her story ‘Hessy and the Lost Tooth’ emerged 2nd runner-up in the 2020 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children’s Literature.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between Kenya and Lesotho, via WhatsApp.
Edith: Congratulations on being the second runner-up in the 2020 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children’s Literature for your story, ‘Hessy and the Lost Tooth’.
Halieo: Thank you so much Edith and Hi! First of all, being that it was my first time entering a competition of children’s literature, the win came as a big shock to me, I mean even being shortlisted was a big deal. So, you can imagine how I felt when my name was announced at the event.
Edith: Oh really, your first time? How exciting! Reading ‘Hessy and the Lost Tooth’, one would imagine you are a seasoned award-winning children’s writer. I’m surprised that it was your first time entering a children’s lit competition. Have you been writing in this genre for a long time though? Even if you haven’t been entering into competitions.
Halieo: I started writing Children’s Literature this very year. After I joined Writers Space Africa this year, I met wonderful people who introduced me to the genre, and me being the children lover, I fell in love and started drafting stories. The positive feedback that I got from my fellow writers gave me the confidence to enter the competition.
Edith: You know I also started writing poetry this year after previously swearing to never ever giving it a glance. And when my first piece got published in an international magazine, it felt thrilling. That acceptance was like oil to my tank, and so I’ve been writing more poetry, I think I have 7 published poetry pieces now.
Do you think this win will have an impact on the attention you give to children’s writing? I know it’s early days but are you thinking about submitting more of your works out there, or even considering publishing a children’s book in the future?
Halieo: This win has already done something for me. Since I started writing Children’s Literature, I have always been given the advice to publish a book. I am going to take this as my first step towards publishing the book. And yes, I work very closely with children and so I am always eager to say something with these little ones. That’s basically what gives me joy.
Edith: Oh yes, ‘Hessy and the Lost Tooth’ will make such a beautiful picture book. Wishing you all the best as you plan on publishing it. And you know there are a lot of things I loved in this story, but what intrigued me the most, and you must tell me about it, is the lizard angle.
Hessy’s dad tells her “when that time comes, you take the tooth and throw it on the roof. When you throw the tooth, you have to tell the lizard on the roof to take its ugly tooth and never return it. That way, the tooth will never grow again.” I’ve never heard of this!! Do tell, where did this lizard-tooth inspiration come from?
Halieo: Thank you. I will work hard to make the book good. As for the lizard, that is another story for children (laughs). But to answer you, where I come from, we grew up knowing that our teeth are taken by the lizard. We knew lizards as reptiles that lived on the roofs of the houses, so everything that went up there, belonged to the lizards. And so, the inspiration is actually what we live through in Lesotho, maybe in other places too, but there is another story in that too, one that I will tell soon. (Laughs)
Edith: It’s amazing the things we grow up believing in our cultures. There are some who will talk about tooth fairies, others lizards, and for me, growing up, we believed that if your tooth was loose, you had to apply chicken poop on it so that it doesn’t come off. And if it did, you had to throw it to the chicken to eat it. I honestly can’t understand the rationale behind it, and why we did it.
And speaking of culture, your story starts with an issue that cuts across all cultures, and that is one of conforming. Hessy isn’t happy with his extra tooth because no one in the family has it, and also, his friends make fun of it. He wants to be like everyone else, and don’t we all? Many think that acceptance and belonging is only an issue with adults, but do you think children suffer more from self-esteem issues arising from thinking that they are different?
“Because I play and learn with kids most of the time, I have seen how they struggle to fit in because of little things they individually have that others don’t. Everyone is unique and that is what they should be taught, instead of everyone is ‘different’.“
Halieo: (Laughs). Now that you mention poop, we actually apply dogs’ poop when a molar is painful and loose. That will help reduce the pain. It is very funny really.
The issue with self-esteem actually starts from a young age. The things we go through as kids normally shape us to be who we become as adults. And all in all, kids do suffer from these things even more than adults because as adults, we know what we want, we have a choice either stay home and not go out because we know our social circle. It is different for kids because kids play, and they play with kids that are around. That is where they learn how different they are to others. And being different to kids is weird because kids speak frankly. They do not sugarcoat words. So, for kids, because of the society we stay in, being different is hard and it is every kid’s dream to be like all other children and play with others.
Edith: Oh yes, you paint this picture so clearly. Children can sometimes be very mean, even in an innocent way. The other day I was listening to our neighborhood kids playing and they had secluded one child because the game was ‘police and robbers’ and they didn’t allow this kid to play because of his weight. They were saying ‘policemen can’t be fat or they will not be able to catch robbers. And robbers can’t also be fat because they will be caught by the police’. And now that you explain it, it makes sense; kids learn that they are different from other children, and I guess that’s why even Hessy doesn’t want the tooth, because the other kids are ‘making fun of him’. What do you think is the difference between bullying, and making fun of? Does making fun of others graduate to bullying, or is bullying the same thing as making fun of?
Halieo: Your story is quite sad, and it is actually what most kids go through around their friends, quite sad.
I want to say bullying and ‘making fun of’ are different considering the situation and intention made by other kids to one of them. However, the results are always dire for both. At the end of the day, the treatment makes this one kid conscious of such pointed ‘mistakes’ about himself and becomes uncomfortable with it. That only result makes parents aware that their child is being bullied. In my thinking, these two are the same thing.
Edith: Oh yes, the lines are blurry. But they are all the same thing. When I read this story, I immediately connected to it because we’ve all been children with loose, then falling off teeth. And like Hessy, we’ve all impatiently waited for the loose tooth to come out. This story cuts across all races, all ages, all genders, all ages, everyone can relate with this story. What made you write about ‘teeth’?
Halieo: Because I play and learn with kids most of the time, I have seen how they struggle to fit in because of little things they individually have that others don’t. Everyone is unique and that is what they should be taught, instead of everyone is ‘different’. “Teeth” are the most common and obvious example that every kid, like you said, can relate to. Teeth are something that not only kids but adults also see and realize how one is different from ‘normal’ with that extra tooth. So yes, this story goes up to even the adults.
Edith: Everyone is unique, not necessarily different. I love this perspective.
I remember growing up and I thought my two front teeth were very large, and at some point, I would laugh with my hand over my mouth because I was uncomfortable with them, but then I realized later, other people had large front teeth too, and it was nothing to worry about. Also, as a teenager with budding breasts, I realized my left breast was slightly bigger than my right. I felt as if everyone could see it. I was so uncomfortable, and worried. Other girls’ breasts seemed the same size, and that’s all I wanted. But now, I know that more than 70%of women have one breast slightly bigger than the other. Something else I thought was unique about your story, is the fact that Hessy’s father is very involved in his child’s upbringing. Largely in the African society, it’s the mothers mostly involved in the day-to-day raising of children and the fathers are relegated to disciplinarians. In this story, Hessy’s mother is only mentioned twice in passing. But when it comes to calling Hessy to come back from the playground, encouraging, embracing, talking to etc., we see Hessy’s father doing them. Was this deliberate in reconstruction of gender roles in the story?
Halieo: By the way, I love your stories’ examples, they justify how each one of us has something to relate in Hessy’s story from just an early stage of our lives. As for the involvement of parents in this story, I am very happy that you actually managed to pick up Hessy’s father and his involvement. I was not raised by my parents at all, but what I have learnt is that fathers may not be as involved in the daily lives of their children as mothers, mainly because they’d be out working to provide for the family. But fathers actually do a lot more than we appreciate. Hessy’s father went out at twilight to fight for him.
Mostly mothers will be the first to notice problems, but fathers always have to step in when the problem gets tougher to handle. Hessy’s father portrays an African man, who appears at critical situations to solve the problem. But what is uncommon about the story is that we actually see the physically good relationship between father and son, hence why we will say the father is more involved in the raising of the son.
Edith: I see this from a different perspective. In single-parent households, and sometimes even in both parent households, mothers also step in to handle ‘tough’ problems, don’t you think? Hell hath no fury like a mother whose child is scorned. But I find it interesting what you say, about fathers coming in at the last minute to solve problems. Doesn’t it thereby cast them as heroes, and by so doing disregard mothers who are always in the shadows holding everything above water?
As you have said, I also loved the good relationship between Hessy and the dad. There’s a lot that’s been said of absentee fathers in Africa, or even among Black people, so I loved, loved, loved that this was also a story of positive fatherhood.
Halieo: I understand you not agreeing with me. We come from the community where many families are single-parent homes, being mothers mostly, and because of this, we are very much aware of the absence of fathers in our lives, either they are completely absent, or they are working.
In the case of heroes, I think and believe that fathers do come out to be heroes more than mothers because of our cultural conditioning. A man who steps up and protects his family is a hero. He’s doing something that many other men are not doing. As for mothers, we live with them every day, they help us with everything we struggle with. They are heroes of our daily challenges but because fathers seldom solve things, they will always shine that one time and take the glory all the way. I have to admit, I was not looking at the story from the perspective of absent fathers but this actually does make a very good lesson to men. I hope this interview will help us spread that beautiful lesson. Thank you.
Edith: Definitely! In the story, we also see Hessy looking forward to, and even practicing, the lizard song every day, and then finally, when the tooth comes out, he loses it. Talk about a plot twist! I totally didn’t see that coming. For me that was an important lesson that things don’t always go according to plan. Not with adults, not even with children. And also, even the things that don’t go according to plan, eventually turn out for good.
Halieo: To be honest, I had not actually planned the twist from the beginning. The story itself is centered into showing people that ‘everyone is unique’ but while writing, I found myself asking ‘what if Hessy lost his tooth?’ Could it mean the tooth would grow back? How would he respond? What about the story of the lizard?’ So, I ended up adding to the story, giving Hessy more support and building a relationship with his parents. The lesson behind the missing tooth is that life will always put us in different situations while we are still alive. What matters is how we respond to the situations. Because of his goal of throwing the tooth to the lizard, Hessy could not have allowed the tooth to stay lost like that, but at the end of the day, because he got helped by his wiser father, he did not feel bad by not finding the tooth.
Edith: I really love this response. And stories do have a way of just writing themselves. Sometimes we go in using one direction, then the story takes control and has its own way. And what you say at the end, that because of the wisdom of his father, Hessy did not feel bad about losing the tooth, reminds me of my experience years ago.
I remember when I was about 10 years old, my uncle gave me three 10-shilling coins. As a child that was a fortune, I put the coins in my breast pocket and minutes later, my mum asked me to go and draw water from the well in our compound. As soon as I bent over, the coins toppled into the water well. Believe me the whole neighborhood heard me wailing and came running. You would have thought someone had died. After being held back because I wanted to jump in the well to follow my money, my uncle told me ‘Knight, you should not put all your eggs in one basket’. It was the first time I heard that saying, and I have never forgotten it. Of course, they told me a story (lie) that if money falls into the well, the well will never dry, and I had preserved the life of my family by the sacrifice of my money blah blah, which made me feel a bit better, (laughs).
But the point is, which is your point actually, as a child, having an adult to guide and comfort is very helpful in our growth. And we see Hessy being nurtured throughout the story in his different emotions of frustration, anger, pain and even joy when he is taught the lizards’ song. Do you think it’s very important for parents to acknowledge and work through their children’s emotions with them? I’ve heard some parents tell their kids, ‘stop being childish’ which can be very disruptive to a child, don’t you think?
Halieo: Your story is very funny. Most of the stories that our elders use to justify situations are actually fictitious, which is why we exist.
To answer your question, yes, I firmly believe that parents should learn to listen and acknowledge their children’s emotions with them. We come from quite a cruel culture, where not only our parents would say, “stop being childish” but also, we get spanked for crying when our mates beat us. That is why we actually find it hard to open up to our parents, because in most cases they judge us or rather order us instead of helping us go through our emotions. But I have to admit, the situation is changing with time. Parents are now becoming friends with kids.
Edith: (Laughs). Yes. Parents would ask you ‘why did you let that other child beat you? Next time beat them!’ But agreed, parent-children relationships are changing for the better. As we come to the end of the interview, tell me, what are you currently working on? Be it in film or creative writing. Anything we can look forward to?
Halieo: Well thank you. Fortunately for me, I’m always working on something. I’m working on specially publishing a book from this very story of Hessy and the Lost Tooth. We will surely be reading it early next year. As for the film part, I’m working on a feature film called ‘Wish for My Daughter’. It is a story about inheritance in Lesotho, especially when it turns to the girl child. These are my main projects right now.
Edith: Thank you for your time Halieo, it’s been such a pleasure speaking with you.
Halieo: Thank you for giving me the opportunity.
Edith Knight Magak is a creative writer and a 2020 Writing Fellow at African Liberty. Prior publication credits include Brittle Paper, Jalada Africa, Meeting of Minds UK, Jellyfish Review, among others. She lives and writes in Nairobi, Kenya. Find her on Twitter @oedithknight