Every once in a while you come across a book that just makes you smile. A Little Walk in our Neighbourhood by Ottawa-based author JP Melville is such a work.
Based on his experience living in Mali with his family from 2002-2004, this short book of less than 40 pages chronicles a single day in the lives of Melville’s daughter Olivia, then 4, and Ben, then 6, as they walk around their neighbourhood in Bamako, the capital of Mali.
With colourful photos and easy to read text, this cute story shows Africa as seen through the eyes of children.
“Kids and their capacity to absorb big picture stuff inspired me to write the book,” says Melville, who has worked for such development-focussed organizations as Oxfam, CARE and CUSO. “My own kids and all the kids I meet, if treated with just a bit of dignity and mutual respect, will listen to any idea, no matter how big or small.”
One of the things that I really enjoyed about this book was its sense of joy. While poverty and poor infrastructure are clearly visible in the photographs, the sense that the reader gets is not one of despair but rather of pride.
Olivia and Ben, in their youthful exuberance, act as tour guides of their neighbourhood, where they introduce the reader to their friends and fun spots.
With this positive context, the story allows parents to discuss some pretty serious themes with their children, such as inequality, damage to the environment, and even the civil war in neighbouring ivory costs.
“Funny, Alejandro, that you mention the environment, poverty, war as subjects of the book,” says Melville, when asked to comment on these themes. “True. It is very much also a book about wealth, class divisions, race, and conflicts of faith. I can only hope that readers of all ages reflect on their selves in this world. Hopefully, the book inspires engagement, responsibility, and social action.
But inspiring a social conscious in young minds is not the only thing that this book does. It also provides an uplifting picture of West Africa.
“Plurality is great!” says Melville, when asked what Canadians can learn from Mali. “In some sense we call it multiculturalism here in Canada. The poor, the wealthy, the arts, construction, whites, blacks, muslims, Christians, business, schools, donkeys, cars and everything can live together with mutual respect. Or at minimum, tolerance.
“Amazing that in one city block, Olivia and Ben could see and feel so much of the world happening right around them. Something is lost here in Canada where our urban spaces are organized into economic and social ghettos.
“A kid walking around a block in Nepean will see houses with front yards, a car parked in front, nary a bubble gum vendor or school teacher or taxi repair shop to be seen.”
While this is Melville’s first published work, he is planning on releasing a second children’s book just before Christmas, as well as a fictional collection of letters for adults, with his publisher, Ottawa-based Mapalé & Publishing Inc.
In the meantime, if you want to Melville’s other work, check out the documentary film The Road to Baleya that he co-produced with Close Up Films in Toronto. The movie was shot on location in Bamako and environs.