Madeha Ezekiel Malecela was born on 14th February 1995 in Dodoma Region, Tanzania. He has a Bachelor’s degree in Law, and is a writer by passion. His writing enthusiasm was cultivated in him from a young age. He grew up writing stories and poems in both English and Swahili. In the process, his writing skills were polished by inspiration from various writers within Tanzania, Africa and other parts of the world. His goal is to play a fundamental role in supporting the growth, spread and maturity of African Literature. Madeha looks forward to writing various works which will entertain, educate, highlight various problems facing Africans politically, culturally, socially and economically and encourage our societies to aspire for positive changes.
BY EDITH KNIGHT MAGAK
This conversation took place between Kenya and Tanzania, via WhatsApp.
Edith: Thank you so much Madeha for allowing us to have this conversation. First of all, congratulations! Your story, ‘Scared Little Boy’ was the overall winner of the 2020 Wakini Kuria Prize for Children’s Literature. How did that make you feel?
Madeha: Thank you so much. First of all, I would like to thank Almighty God for the victory. I knew that I made a brilliant effort in preparing something unique for the contest but the victory caught me unaware. The Wakini Kuria Award means a lot to me. This is the first victory of my life in writing competitions. To a great extent, it has inspired me to keep on writing creatively more and more. I felt so excited when I opened that email telling me that I have been the winner. My sincere gratitude to the Judges and the whole team at large.
Edith: You are right. Wins always make us want to write more. On the mornings I wake up to acceptance emails from publications, I always feel raring to go. On the days, I wake up to rejected works, it sort of almost clouds my day. And I must say you truly deserved the win. ‘Scared Little Boy’ is an excellent story! I love that it’s a story within a story, and the story within is written poetically, I found that so intriguing.
Madeha: Well, at first, I came up with an idea of a poem only. Like many other writers, it usually takes me a while to appreciate and be satisfied with my masterpiece. So, I had written the first three stanzas before my inner thoughts started criticizing me about the boredom of the common style. That being the case, I had to stop there for a while and think for an alternative way to beautify my work. In order to make it more interesting, I came up with an idea of a story of a scared little girl who seeks for advice on how to overcome her fears from her grandfather. I began writing the story, and proceeded with poem within it. I even found it more fascinating when the girl was eager to know what will occur next as her grandfather was narrating. That’s how I decorated my style with a story within a story.
Edith: And the story is decorated indeed! It’s such a rare style in the children’s genre. When you say that your ‘inner thoughts started criticizing’ you and then say you had to ‘stop and think of an alternative’ I find it familiar and unfamiliar.
Familiar because as a writer, I too struggle with imposter syndrome and self-doubt about my work, but unfortunately, which is the unfamiliar part, I don’t always see it as an opportunity to be innovative, and experiment with new styles, which is what you did. And you know what, I’ll do that in the future. When I feel stuck in my writing, I’ll try to be innovative. Do you do that a lot? experiment with forms in your works or was it just this one time?
Madeha: Make that self-doubt a bridge to innovation. Give yourself room for self-criticism. Put yourself in the shoes of the reader as you ask yourself: Would I enjoy this if I was the one reading it? This will help you become more innovative with your works. Sometimes I like to do experiments with forms. Writing is like the art of cooking. Your food tastes different according to how you spice it. We might be cooking the same food, but spice it in different ways. So is writing. My other works are also largely experimental. I usually like to put a different taste. As I stated prior, sometimes conforming too much to the common becomes monotonous. Doesn’t it?
“I grew up realizing that there is nothing in the dark that isn’t in the light. Like the scared little boy, I conquered my fears.“
Edith: Definitely. The blank page is like a lab, and we should try to mix and experiment as much as we can. I recently published a poetry piece that was sooooo new even to me. It was a 3-stanza poem and the first was prose-like, the second lyric, and the 3rd a pantoum, I’ve been very proud of it honestly. You are spot on in saying we should put ourselves in the shoes of the reader, some people say, ‘write like a reader’ which I think tends to be difficult in children’s literature as you have to imagine, feel and think like a child. And yet you do it so brilliantly! in ‘Scared little boy’ the impatient interjections the little girl makes as the grandfather tells the story, how the little boy hides and thinks, how we see the world according to his eyes, its very child-like, how were you able to successfully get your mind to write in this frame of child-like wonder, fear, and perceptions?
Madeha: William Faulker once stated that “A writer needs three things, experience, observation and imagination. Any of these can supply the lack of the others when one or two are missing.” I had my experience travelled back then when I was young. As I said before a writer has to put him/herself in the shoes of the reader. So literally, I became a child when I was writing my story. We should bear in our minds that most children grow up fighting insecurities, doubts and fears. Children tend to be more imaginative. A positive imagination builds them. A negative one destroys them. Scared little boy portrays what most children go through. It doesn’t mean all children are afraid of their own shadows. A shadow represents many other things that terrify children, existing in the real world and their world of imagination. However, they can always be encouraged to be courageous and to face their fears.
Edith: In my earlier writing days; I would imitate Faulkner’s writing style in all my prose. He was like my writing idol back then, and so I agree 100% with everything he says. Ha!
As a child, I conjured up a man roasting maize by the roadside, and every time my parents switched off the light, and I’d start to sleep, I would immediately see this man beside the closet. It went on for weeks, I was so terrified of nightfall such that for the longest time lights had to be left on for me. But dad told me, that when I see this maize roaster, I should walk up to him. Of course, I refused, and after persisting we put it to test, he switched off the lights and later on, the man appeared. It took all of my 8-year-old strength to get off the bed. I was terrified! but guess what, when I reached the closet, he wasn’t there. And I never saw him again, ever. I had to face my monster: so, this lesson of teaching children to face their fears rings so true. That’s why I connected with this story so much, I’ve been there.
Sometimes I hear adults telling children, ‘oh those things are not real, forget about them’ but as children, our monsters are real to us, and so dismissing them doesn’t help, but acknowledging them, even if they are not real, and then encouraging children to face them, and find out for themselves that this is not real, is the way to go about it. And that’s what your story excellently communicates. Did you have any shadows/monsters as a child?
Madeha: Feels like I wrote this story to encourage the 8-year-old you back then. There are so many children out there facing what you experienced when you were young.
Yes, just like many other children I had a monster when I was young. When I was a little boy, my Dad had bought a leather jacket which had furs on its collar. Honestly, this coat tormented my brain every day at sunset. I remember dreaming more than once of the coat attacking me in bed to suck my blood. It sounds hilarious right? What made it even worse was that I used to be so scared of the darkness too. At our house, we had an untidy store with no lights. Whenever I made a mistake, my parents would threaten to lock me in that dark store for the whole day. Trust me, you don’t want to know how I used to scream and shout begging for mercy. I would act so innocent just not to be locked in that dark store. However, I grew up realizing that there is nothing in the dark that isn’t in the light. Like the scared little boy, I conquered my fears.
Edith: Wow! That coat sounds horrifying! And it’s astounding that our parents threatened us with our fears, just like you, if I was being naughty my mum would say ‘Today you will sleep with the lights off, see if you will like that!’ I love what you say: ‘There is nothing in the dark that isn’t in the light’. this is profound.
It’s so important for children to know this, and something else I noticed in the story is that the characters don’t have names. It’s just little boy, little girl, the fat woman, and grandfather? What was the intention of eliminating names?
Madeha: Elimination of names was a kind of style that I opted. I felt like by eliminating names in a story of my kind, would make anyone feel like he/she fits any of the characters from the story.
Another reason behind that, is a brief description that one can obtain by just reading a single phrase. For instance; in literature an old man is a symbol of wisdom. Someone tall and huge, is a symbol of bravery. Some one little symbolizes a person who is weak, in trouble or in fear. We were limited by a number of words so I had to be creative with a presentation of my characters without spending too much unnecessary words just describing characters’ behaviors, physical appearance and so forth.
Edith: That’s a commendable style. With the anonymity, anyone in the world from any creed or race can identify with the little boy or girl, seeing as you also did not affix the story in a particular location. But do tell, what do you think made the scared little boy suddenly decide to face his fears? In the story you write,
‘Then suddenly like a mighty warrior/ In a count of one, two, three/ He said I am not a worrier/ He stepped out from the tree.
Because even when earlier he sees the fat woman walking bravely with her ghost, that doesn’t inspire him, he remains helpless.
My personal interpretation of this was; sometimes we can be in the same situations as others, and see them facing the same ‘ghosts’ we have, but even that won’t give us the courage to confront ours. In fact, we’ll feel even more sorry for ourselves. But rather, there’s a hero inside every one of us (as cliché as it is) and ultimately, we have to draw in on our strength and make the decision to face our ghosts, just like the little boy. That’s what I took from the two parallels. What was the authorial intention in writing this part?
Madeha: I love how you interpreted that stanza. You are absolutely correct. Just to add some extra beef in this bugger, I would like to recite stanza 7, verse 1 and 2 which state;
“Bigger her ghost appeared,
But she walked bravely and fearless”
You see, no sooner had he seen the fat woman, when a courageous spirit accelerated within him. My authorial intention was to highlight one of the fundamental lessons of life. Undeniably, everyone’s life is like a roller coaster. In such circumstances, sometimes we tend to think that we have bigger problems to deal with than anyone. No one can deny the fact that multiple times we have ever felt like we have a turbulent ocean to cross. But when we get to hear and see other people who have larger burdens to deal with than ours, it appears to us that we just have a river to cross. From my story, the little boy realized that the fat woman had a bigger ghost than his but she walked bravely and fearless. He then spent some few moments thinking what a coward he is before he took that courageous move. Consequently, that’s how we are all motivated to push forward, and get the audacity to fight our doubts, fears and troubles.
That’s where your stanza of concern comes in.
“Then suddenly like a mighty warrior,
In a count of one two, three,
He said I am not a worrier,
He stepped out from the tree”
Edith: Your interpretation makes a lot of sense, thank you for that. Now that we are talking about stanzas, tell me about the process of composing the poetry in this story? Very noticeable is the rhyme scheme, and you use both perfect and imperfect rhymes in the ABAB scheme. What other stylistic devices did you consider in the poem? Lastly, do you find writing children’s poetry different from other poetry (that is if you do write adult poetry?
Madeha: I would have gone with Henry Barlow’s style of composition in the poem “Building The Nation” or a similar style in Claude McKay poem “If We Must Die.” But I found word rhyming more suitable because this poem is mostly dedicated to children. According to my experience and observation, children always do have fun with rhyming. I recall one of the songs we used to sing at school when I was a child;
“One, two, Buckle my shoe; Three, four,
Knock at the door; Five, six, Pick up sticks; Seven, eight,
Lay them straight: Nine, ten,
A big fat hen.”
The rhyming makes it more interesting. That’s what most children like. So, I adopted such a style. Word rhyming was the most stylistic device I kept in consideration during the composition of this poem. The other is just a common style of using four verses in each stanza (quatrain) in a narrative way.
As a writer I believe, there is a line of distinction between children’s poetry and adult poetry. This line of distinction appears in the Content part of a work of Art. There are Children’s content and Adults’ content. However, the two don’t differ in Form which includes composition, techniques and designs used.
Edith: Oh yes! I remember this children’s rhyme. I remember singing among others, ‘ring around the roses’, Johnny Johnny yes papa, Baa baa black sheep,’ which was my favorite. The rhythms and rhymes of children’s poems make them so easy to remember.
I still even remember word for word the Swahili ones we sang along to in my school, there was ‘naskia sauti ya mama, moja mbili tatu (it was a counting song) plus a host of others. So yes, the rhyming and repetition was very important.
Lastly, I see that you are very passionate about writing. Have you always written, and are you currently working on something, maybe more children’s literature? Other genres?
Madeha: Yes, Edith. I have been a passionate writer ever since I was in primary school. I used to compose stories and poems back then, but I had no access to any platform to present them. One of my dreams was and still is to have my own publication.
In secondary school, my teacher gave us an assignment with a closing line so that we could compose a story out of it. I composed something very much different from the rest of the students in the class. She even called me to the office and asked me to read the story in front of her fellow teachers. I was the only student who scored 10/10. That event hit me different and it has contributed so much to what kind of a writer I am today. Much appreciation also to my late beloved mother and my beloved father, who believed in me. They inspired me a lot in being a creative writer.
But the Wakini Kuria Award has ignited my passion and I believe it will open doors for me towards achieving my goals. I am currently working on a novel. If God wishes, this will be my first publication…or the second after “The scared little boy.” Wish me luck!
Edith: I wish you all the luck in the world. Thank you so much, Madeha, for your time. It’s been an absolute delight speaking with you.