The Magic Formula
written by Ibrahima Ndiaye, illustrated by Capucine Mazille, translated by Rebecca Page
(Bakame Editions (Rwanda), 2011)
The Magic Formula is a retelling of an African folktale about a magic marula tree that won’t release its fruit until a certain long, complicated phrase is recited. Set during a drought in the land of “Farafinaland” in the year “nobody-knows”, the animals have all come together in their suffering. Nevertheless, their individual traits emerge in the course of the lively narrative: the lion is fierce; the hyena is sneering and excitable; and the elephant is wise.
One day, the elephant calls on the animals to journey together in search of food (also offering scope for the eye-catching illustration both within the story and spread across the book’s covers). The insects provide an “aerial escort”, and the chameleon with his “special eyes” takes on the role of scout perched on the giraffe’s head. Sure enough, he is the first to see the magic marula tree laden with fruit – and he also spots the old woman Mama Tenga under another distant tree. She gives the magic words to first the elephant and then the hyena – but each is distracted on the way back to the marula tree and forgets them. It is only when, at the elephant’s suggestion, they all work together in “solidarity” that they are able to remember the words and access the fruit.
Ibrahima Ndiaye’s retelling is slightly different from another recent version of the story from Tanzania, The Amazing Tree (North-South Books, 2009) by John Kilaka, whose work has also been published by Bakame Editions. These two versions compliment each other with their different sets of characters and the chant in Kinyarwanda in The Magic Formula and in Kiswahili inThe Amazing Tree, as well as the contrasting styles of the illustrations. Here, Capucine Mazille’s watercolours add depth to the story with a wonderful mix of characterful facial expressions. As well as the key characters, the line-up includes an exciting array of different African animals, including an aardvark and a pangolin – plenty to absorb young readers. The lively dialogue also makes this a great readaloud, and young listeners will probably soon pick up the magic formula quicker than the animals themselves, adding to their enjoyment of the story.
The Magic Formula, under its Rwandan title Imvugo idasanzwe, was included in IBBY’s Honor List 2012, which highlights outstanding books from around the world. This translation into English offers us the opportunity to share this wonderful story too.