Children's book tackles AIDS, death and rejection for under-11s

AIDS is probably the last subject that comes to mind when choosing a theme for a children's book. But for Fatou Keita, whose latest book 'A Tree for Lollie' features a young girl infected with the virus, there is nothing peculiar about it.

"I didn't invent AIDS," Keita said. "Children are confronted with the subject all the time. They hear adults talking about it, they see soap operas about it, they see TV advertisements for condoms."

Keita, a youthful 48-year-old, is an esteemed author of children's books in French-speaking Cote d'Ivoire. 'A Tree for Lollie' is her eleventh book, a colourful hardcover which deals more than anything with rejection.

Lollie -- a deliberate fantasy name to avoid naming real people -- is a skinny African girl who has just changed schools.

She is immediately popular with her classmates until they find out that she has AIDS. Her two new best friends are so scared that they run home to take a shower. Lollie becomes a pariah.

The fear that Lollie is contagious only subsides when the teacher gets two friendly doctors to explain some basic facts about the disease.

The pupils then understand that people with AIDS "are not monsters that do stupid things", according to the person who tells the tale, a girl called Aisha.

The first children's book Fatou Keita wrote was about a blue-skinned boy living in an African village. At the end, after months of cruel rejection, the villagers grow so used to his bizarre skin colour that they no longer notice it.

For Lollie, the author has reserved a sadder fate. The girl dies, but it is not a terribly sad ending, says the softly-spoken author.

"The children plant a beautiful flamboyant tree to commemorate her," Keita explained. "Death is also a subject I've been wanting to tackle," she added. "So with this book, I killed two birds with one stone."

But despite her talking about death and AIDS, there was a third, equally sensitive subject that Keita actually did avoid: sex. She probably could have obtained sponsorship for the book had she at least mentioned contraceptives, she said. But she didn't.

"I've had some talks with UNICEF but the procedure of getting financial aid seemed so long that I dropped the idea," Keita said. "Worse, they wanted me to include several lines about sex and wearing contraceptives. 'A Tree for Lollie' is written for children between age 6 and 11. I did not want to talk about sex. I just didn't feel like it."

Cote d'Ivoire has the highest infection rate of HIV/AIDS in West Africa. According to UNAIDS statistics, 7 percent of the country's 16 million people carry the virus. The government's own data points to a higher rate of 9.5 percent, but many health workers fear the real infection rate is even higher.

"It's dramatic," Keita said. "I often wonder if people reali s e that we're headed towards a catastrophe."

Keita writes books because she loves writing, she said, but it doesn't pay nearly enough to do fulltime. So Keita's day job is director of the English department of Cocody University, in the heart of the city.

Still, compared to other, less wealthy French speaking West African countries, Cote d'Ivoire has a prospering market for children's books. The demand for children's books even surpasses the sales of non-religious adult literature. Most of Keita's previous books were printed at 5,000 to 10,000 copies and several have sold out.

Keita said 'A Tree for Lollie' was greeted with positive reviews at the Surprising Travellers literary festival which she attended in the Malian capital Bamako last month.

"Every parent is worried about AIDS. No one wants their child to get it. This book offers a way to talk about it," she said "And besides, it's just a nice story."