Carolyn Armstrong’s book, “Because of Khalid” (Tiger Stripe Publishing), is set in Tanzania. This story interested me because its setting is not a common one for middle grade books, so it gives young readers a window into a different place on the planet.
In addition, I was drawn to this story because like my own latest release, “How to Raise a Rhino,” (Bedazzled Ink) the story is set at a safari camp/wildlife sanctuary. (Though “How to Raise a Rhino” is set in Kenya)
Armstrong’s main character, Chris, is a tween boy who has to leave his Chicago home and his friends to live with his parents for two years at the safari camp, Kipepeo Tented Camps. This is his parents’ dream experience, but Chris resents it from the very beginning. The scary, wild animals, the weird food the lack of reliable internet, he hates it all.
That is, until he meets Khalid, a Maasai warrior who is hired to provide security for Kipepeo Tented Camps. Khalid dresses in a shuka, a traditional Masaai blanket made of bright red material, and carries a wooden spear.
Chris is captivated.
Meeting Khalid, even though he is more than five years older than Chris, is a turning point. Chris becomes interested in Khalid’s culture, in the local wildlife and in the language.
One of the things I like best about Armstrong’s story is that she weaves Swahili vocabulary into the book at every opportunity. There is no pronunciation guide in the book, but I found this website with a friendly woman who gives us numerous phrases to practice, which I really enjoyed.
As his interest in this new life grows, Chris pays special attention to the elephants that wander in herds around the camp.
One of my favorite parts is when Chris sees his first elephant herd and assumes the leader is male. “…see how he’s staring at us? He isn’t going to charge is he?”
The guide responds, “That’s a she. …The matriarch is everything to the herd; grandmother, mother, leader, teacher and protector.”
But there is also a dark, tense side to Armstrong’s story because there is evidence that there are poachers on the property. Especially after Chris witnesses the aftermath of an elephant being poached, he becomes passionate about teaching people about this threat to elephants.
One thing that comes up several times is that at the current rate of slaughter, elephants will be extinct in 30 years. As young as he is, even Chris realizes that that is a very short time in which to turn the tide.
Chris decides to make a video and post it on social media to try and get the word out about the need to protect elephants.
Another thing I liked about this story is that Armstrong shows us almost step by step how and what Chris decides what to do. This idea that a tween can help, even a little bit, is a great message.
The author also doesn’t sugar coat the enormity or complexity of the challenge.
For example, after his mom shows Chris video of officials pulverizing tons of elephant tusks he wonders how that will help since those elephants are already dead.
“So, what you’re saying is that the merchandise already out there will no longer be for sale. They destroyed it so no one else can have it.” Chris struggled to understand. “But, will that stop people from wanting it? Won’t the poachers just have more reason to go out and get more? What is being done to stop the poachers?”
Typically middle grade novels end on a note of optimism. But the ending in “Because of Khalid” is more ambiguous. While there is still much to be done to stop poaching, Chris made a good friend in Khalid and because of that friendship he had a life-changing experience.
That gives the reader hope and also, having read this story, might be inspired to do their part to get the message out about poaching.