I was checking out a second-hand bookstore called 2nd & Charles, and at the door I found this children's book in the "FREE" bin. I almost put it back down and walked away, but I had just watched the documentary Dark Girls the night before and the lack of positive representations for brown-skinned people was still weighing heavily on my brain. Plus, it's an original copy from 1966, and I'm not one to ignore a sign like that when something that old just falls into my hands. I also extrapolated far into the future thinking, Well if I ever have kids, I could give them books by and/or about black people like Ma did me, and this would be an excellent book to start with. So I took it.
Mogo is a young Kikuyu boy in Kenya who suffers from a thalu (a sickness or curse that his ancestors placed upon him because people praised him too much as a baby). Because of this he is small, weak, clumsy, and often sickly. He cannot do what other boys his age can do, like play games and work in the fields. The only thing he is good at is playing the flute, a skill that one of his older brothers taught him. This is more than a skill, however. Some people say that Mogo has magic; his music captivates people, summons and calms animals, calls on nature around him to flourish and shine. But at the same time people regard him as a pitiable, useless boy who will forever be a burden to his family if he does not learn to do other things. Following the advice of the village's wise man, Mogo focuses on discovering his purpose in life.
After his flute is destroyed by a monkey, Mogo puts forth his best effort to succeed at tasks he is given by his father, like planting and goat herding. He gains respect from others as well as physical strength, but he still longs to play music again. One day, his uncle gives him his flute as a present. As Mogo is entrusted with more responsibilities and uses the flute to save his village's source of livelihood, he realizes that he does not have to choose between what he loves and what he feels obligated to do in order to become a respectable man. He is celebrated, for he has proven to everyone that his gift is not useless.
I appreciate this story a lot because it addresses coming-of-age in a way that people my age can relate to. For some people transitioning to adulthood means giving up childhood fantasies, quelling deeply-felt passions, and becoming serious; it means devoting themselves to what's required or expected of them in order to have a stable or quantitatively successful life. But van Stockum is trying to make readers understand that it does not have to be that way. You do not have to choose between what gives your life meaning and what makes people respect you. Whatever gift it is that you have, you've been given it for a reason! Lately I've been having a crisis about my future and important decisions I'll need to be making, and I tend to be too serious because that's the safe route for me. Believe it or not, Mogo's Flute has made me consider that maybe my problem is that I'm just thinking too small and trying to do too much.
"It was a hard lesson for me to have to wait while nature did its work. But never mind, soil does not cheat a man. In the long run we are rewarded." (p. 50)
"All the things he had not been able to say poured out of his flute; he blew away all his longings, he freed the feelings that had been locked up for long months in his heart, transformed them into fountains of song that seemed to reach to the skies." (p. 71)