Wolo, Mamle. The Kaya Girl. Little, Brown, and Company, 2022. 978-0-316-70393-2.$16.99. 322 p. Grades 5-8.
Set in modern-day Ghana, The Kaya Girl reads like a memoir of a friendship of two fourteen-year old girls from different social and economic backgrounds. A child of privilege and wealth, Abena (Abby) spends the summer with her Auntie Lydia, one of her mother’s older sisters. The stern, hardworking relative owns a fabric shop in the busy Makola Market in Accra. As is the usual custom with Ghanaian families, she has taken in a distant relative, Gifty, to live in her home and work in the shop. Abby, on the other hand, is vacationing at her aunt’s while her mother is in England awaiting the birth of her baby and her father, a physician, is working. When women come to the shop to purchase goods, a kayayoo girl carries their parcels to their destination in her enormous, tin bowl perched on her head. Abby strikes up a friendship with Faiza, the kaya girl who hangs around her aunt’s shop. Through their conversations during down times that summer, the girls share what is most familiar to them. Faiza tells of leaving her birth family to live with her aunt, of her cousin’s arranged marriage at the tender age of twelve, of her desire to attend school, and her quest to find her missing cousin. Abby shows Faiza the wonders of the internet, a revelation of extinct dinosaurs, astronomy, and different lands. In addition to learning the customs of a culture present in her own homeland, Abby becomes aware of her privilege and the poverty that restricts not only Faiza but all the kaya girls. These impressions weigh heavily on her and she channels them into a story for a competition. Despite Auntie Lydia’s disapproval of their friendship and the language barrier, the two girls come to know and like each other. When her aunt seems to soften a bit toward Faiza and leaves for an errand, Abby feels comfortable breaking one of her aunt’s rules and invites Faiza inside the shop. When money goes missing from the till, however, Abby regrets this decision. She knows Faiza is not the thief, but their summer of fun and friendship comes to an abrupt end. The author continues with an extensive epilogue, telling of Abena’s life as an adult and her surprising reunion with her childhood friend. Told in first person from Abena’s point of view, this satisfying novel describes life in Ghana with its disparity of classes and also the sights and sounds of a bustling marketplace. The girls’ friendship is magical and that quality rings true even after years of separation.
THOUGHTS: The Kaya Girl presents two equally interesting girls from opposite backgrounds and because of this difference, the reader learns so much about what life is like when you are poor in Ghana and what life is like when you are not. One learns cultural customs from both sides as well as a description of an open market in another country. Through this experience, readers fulfill one of the major reasons for reading: to live vicariously through others’ experiences and to learn about and appreciate what is unfamiliar. Though the story probably should have stopped with the girls’ parting, carrying the story into their adulthood brings a enjoyable closure. Pair this book with Auma’ Long Run by Eucabeth Odhioma (the dust jacket says she teaches at Shippensburg University) or the les -serious graphic novel, Fibbed by Elizabeth Agyemange. Like these two books, The Kaya Girl is a solid selection for extended Social Studies class.
Realistic Fiction Bernadette Cooke, School District of Philadelphia