MEET THE AUTHOR : Olive Burke takes us on a journey with Neema

Olive Burke’s book. PHOTO I COURTESY


  • She started writing at a very young age, when she was in primary school she wrote her first song. Olive shares with us about her books and writing life.

Olive Burke is a Tanzanian children’s book writer based in the UK.

She started writing at a very young age, when she was in primary school she wrote her first song. Olive shares with us about her books and writing life.

Q. What motivated you to write children books?

I came to realise the shortage of African languages in western children’s literature soon after having my daughter. I am currently living in the UK and found this shortage really shocking, I was saddened by this realisation. The fear of not being able to share my culture and language to my children soon changed into an opportunity, I wanted to fix this so I started writing again.

Growing up we would visit Bibi Barafu in Songea and Bibi Mdogo as I called her (who looked small but was actually older than Bibi Barafu), these two were amazing story tellers. They were so busy acting out characters, singing in Kingoni, clapping and dancing. Those were the happiest days of my childhood. I wanted to preserve that spirit in a sense, I wanted to be able to share that with my children and every child. I wanted them to know how awesome it was like, growing up in Tanzania.

I started writing ‘Once upon a time/ Hapo zamani za kale’, a bilingual titled which is a four stories in one. I think it’s a brilliant picture book that emphasises the importance of being kind, of choosing friends wisely and the importance of paying attention as we pass through life. I wanted to emphasise the moral of the story just like Bibi Barafu would when I was younger. I love that my book set up what I wanted to do and that is to have more Swahili books in Western children literature.

Q. Tell us more about your latest book

I was thinking more of young girls when I wrote my latest book. I soon realised that there are not a lot of positive black girl images out there, especially in the Western society. So it was important for me as a mother of a black girl to fill this gap, and fill it beautifully. So I wrote ‘When Neema went on a journey’. It’s a counting adventure that introduces numbers in a very fun way. It is set in Tanzania. This book was inspired by a trip to Peramiho that my cousins and I took one holiday, long time ago. This book is as much about the exciting things that Neema sees as much as it’s about counting. It’s reminds the reader to be courageous, smart and confident when they go through the journey we call life.

Q. Why is it important to write for black girls?

The society have put black women in the light and dark skin category which I find stupid really because whether you are light skin or dark you are still black, you are still beautiful. I don’t want any young girl to believe this hype. I want Neema to be a symbol of confidence to a black girl. I want girls to be proud of who they are and where they are from. I want them to be proud of the colour of their skin. I want girls to see more images of girls who looks like them that portray confidence, intelligence and beauty. I want all girls to learn from an early age how to dance to the tune of life.

I love writing for children especially because they still see the colours of our world. It is important that we encourage them in their adventure by instilling a strong foundation that only books can do.

My future plan is to write more of course, I find it very therapeutic. I am currently working on a new title for a different audience that I am very excited about, I can’t wait to share this with the world.