Patricia McKissack: I had never heard of Nzingha until I saw her photo on an ad poster. There was a small blurb about her and that was it. On the strength of that insert I decided to write about her, not realizing that there was such a dearth of information about this African leader. Our search for Nzingha took us to Portugal where we located a book in Portuguese about her. We later found the English translation at the University of Virginia Library and borrowed it through Washington University's inter-library loan system. That's what we meant by our research taking many surprising twists and turns.
RFA & EST: You've written two Dear America diaries already, but Nzingha is unique in that she actually lived. How was it different writing from the perspective of a real person?
PM: Details make the difference between writing about a fictional person and a real person. Filling in the details of Nzingha's life was very challenging because of time, distance, and ignorance. Let me explain. Africa is very large and very old. And we know so little about the people who lived there. Nzingha lived a long time ago, during the 1500-1600s, a time when African people relied upon the oral tradition to preserve their history — which was an amazingly accurate system. When African life was interrupted by the slave trade, a great deal of information was lost. While we know the chronology of Nzingha's rule and certain outstanding events, little else was evident. That doesn't mean the information wasn't there. We had to find it. The Portuguese, English and Dutch wrote about the people of Angola, and for that we are grateful. But very often their descriptions of people, places, events, customs, and beliefs were colored by the biases and prejudices of the writer. We relied upon contemporary African and African American historical and archeological findings to add the much-needed details about the day-to-day activities Nzingha and her sisters might have been involved in — things like the name of her father and mother, the seasons, the coming of age ceremony, the return of a victorious king, and alliances with the Imbangala.
RFA & EST: What was it about Nzingha that helped her to succeed in a world dominated, at the time, by male leaders? What struck you as her greatest leadership qualities?
PM: Three words stand out when describing Nzingha's leadership qualities. Determination, loyalty, and bravery — combined with her knowledge of the enemy's ways — made her a formidable adversary.
RFA & EST: Education is seen as important, at least to some members of Nzingha's family. Was this atypical of royal families at the time? Why do you think it was so important to her family?
PM: Nzingha's father recognized that by learning as much as he could about his enemies, the better prepared he would be to face them in battle. So, while education was stressed, it was reserved for the future rulers and military leaders.
RFA & EST: You've painted some beautiful word pictures in this diary such as the description of the market place in Kabasa. You and your husband travel extensively. Did your own travels help you in creating these word pictures?
PM: In our recent travels to Africa we have visited many marketplaces. So our visuals were clear in our minds.
RFA & EST: Nzingha seems to be a relatively lone voice crying out against the injustices of slavery even though her own people took slaves. Why do you think she was so opposed to slavery?
PM: The Portuguese were welcomed into what is now Angola and Congo. The land and weather were too harsh to settle, so the Portuguese turned to the New World. The great sugar plantations in the Caribbean and Brazil needed slaves. Africans were familiar with slavery; held slaves of their own; and even provided the Portuguese with captives taken as prisoners of war or as criminals. But later, to supply the huge numbers of slaves needed in the New World and the tremendous profits to be made from the sale of slaves, the trade become more and more imposing. The Portuguese first demanded that the African kings provide them with slaves as a condition of peace or a position of power. Those Africans who refused to participate began taking any man, women, or child they could capture with the help of puppet kings they had placed in power. There were no restrictions on who was made a slave — members of the royal family, ambassadors, children — anybody could be taken. People were taken away and never seen again. They could not buy their freedom or earn it through hard work. Being taken by the Portuguese meant slavery for life! This was not the kind of slavery Nzingha was willing to accept for herself or her people. She led an armed struggle against the Portuguese and provided a safe haven for runaway slaves in the hills of Matamba.
RFA & EST: What is one question you'd like to ask children after they've finished reading Nzingha's diary?
PM: Why do you think that, even today in Angola, Brazil, and parts of the Caribbean, African people celebrate Nzingha, yet in the United States most people have not heard of her?
RFA & EST: What is one thing you hope young readers will take with them after reading Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba?
PM: I hope young readers will realize that leaders should not be selected, or their success measured, by race, gender, or national origin. Secondly, I hope young readers will recognize that if they didn't know about Nzingha, they will also realize how much else don't they know about Africans and African history and be motivated to find out more and more and more.
Interview conducted by Richard F. Abrahamson, Ph.D., Professor of Literature for Children and Young Adults, University of Houston, and Eleanore S. Tyson, Ed.D., Clinical Assistant Professor, University of Houston, Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Houston, Texas.