One of my fondest memories growing up was story time with my mother and younger sister because it was a ritual that brought us together at the end of the day. My mother would settle into the couch, one child on each side and open the book just enough so we would have to squeeze in a little closer to see the pictures. Once she opened the cover of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters, we were in another world.
In the story, two sisters, Manyara and Nyasha are poor village girls raised by a single father. When it is announced that a young king wants a wife, Mufaro sends both of his daughters on the long journey to the city. On the way, both girls face a series of tests. Manyara reacts with coldness to a young boy who cries out for food. She also scorns the wisdom of an old woman who tells her to hold her tongue when she passes a laughing grove of trees. Finally, she ignores the woman’s advice to be polite to a disfigured old man.
On her way to the king, Nyasha, the kinder sister, is confronted by the hungry boy and gives him something to eat. And unlike Manyara, she heeds the old woman’s advice and thanks her with a pouch of sunflower seeds. In true fairy tale tradition, Nyasha finally meets the king who reveals that he was the young boy, the old woman, and the disfigured man in disguise. King Nyoka has seen Nyasha’s kindness and inner beauty and asks her to be his wife. Because of her selfishness, Manyara must be content to live as a servant in the royal kingdom.
As my mother read each page, her voice gave life to each of the characters, bringing us along for the journey. Each time we read the book, my sister and I held our breaths, hearts racing, as King Nyoka revealed himself to the worthy sister. In those moments before bedtime there was nothing else and no one else. It was the three of us caught under a spell. I think my sister and I loved that book so much because the characters looked like us. I remember tracing my fingers over the beautiful brown faces and the braided hair adorned with gold. I needed those few minutes at the end of the day to look in a mirror and affirm my worth. As a little black girl living in a mostly white world, I needed that story to be part of my own.
I don’t know when we stopped reading the book or even when we stopped having storytime. In the years that followed, I remembered those moments and that book with a fierce tenderness. It reminded me of a time when life seemed so simple, and the problems of the day could be temporarily suspended. Today, my sister and I have carried on the ritual of storytime with our own daughters and sitting on both of our shelves is a copy of Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters.