The government of Tanzania banned 16 children’s books from the ongoing “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” series. Education minister Adolf Mkenda justified the move by saying that the books are in contrast with Tanzanian traditions, customs, and culture and endanger the quality education of Tanzanian children and young people.
Many people on social media went on to related the ban with a suspicion that the books contain pro-LGBTQ+ messaging. As a primary school student, I read 13 books from that series, and I don’t remember coming across any content that either closely or distantly relates to promoting LGBTQ+ messaging.
Doubting my memory, I called my friends, whom I know also read the books, in preparation for this article, to ask them if, while reading them came across any message that promotes LGBTQ+ issues. They all came to one conclusion: never.
Having amassed over 275 million copies worldwide and spawned four feature films, the books are top-rated among preteen readers worldwide, even in Tanzania, where leisurely reading is not widely considered a common pastime for many kids.
Now banned, it means that bookstores nationwide will have to remove the books from shelves and schools to cease using them in libraries. Parents have also been encouraged to routinely check their children’s rooms and school bags to make sure children do not read the books.
What is genuinely baffling, however, is the sheer inaccuracy and groundlessness of the ban.
The government is right to assume that exposure to LGBTQ+ storytelling at the age most kids read the Wimpy Kid books can make a massive impression on their perception of what they have likely been conditioned already at that stage to view as taboo, and in some cases even their sexuality.
This is why the fact that no one who has ever read these books can recall even a single instance where an LGBTQ+ character, or even plotline, occurred should raise a few eyebrows. The ban reeks of misinformation and a wilful disinterest in the books’ content.
A fundamental aspect of the series’ mass-market appeal is the low-stakes nature and relatability of the hijinks the protagonist, a 12-year-old boy named Greg Heffley, engages in.
Greg himself is heterosexual and is the second in a family of five. Many of the books’ gags and arcs revolve around his attempts to learn how to approach girls his age and deal with his childhood crushes.
All of the books are narrated from his perspective. But, as far as I can tell, there isn’t even an instance of him observing the offenses the government has deemed the books guilty of.
The notion of a book series explicitly targeted at preteens wilfully including LGBTQ+ sentiment is almost laughable.
Few publishing houses would have made the series as lucrative as it has become, knowing it included LGBTQ+ elements. Unfortunately, Abrams Books, the publisher of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, is not one of them.
The ban is an almost comical case of gross government overreach, stemming from, at best, a profoundly misguided interpretation of the books and, at worst, (and probably most likely) a knowing fabrication of the series’ contents in the pursuit of some unknown agenda.
But this is not an isolated incident regarding government overreach, justified in the name of “Tanzania’s morals.”
From the National Arts Council’s (BASATA) routine confrontations with recording artists like Diamond Platinumz over explicit music videos and lyrical content to the government’s ban of numerous newspapers under the punitive Media Services Act, we can see that aggressive censorship is the modus operandi of multiple government organs irrespective of who is in the presidency.
What makes this latest iteration of gross government overreach perhaps particularly unique is that the ban is being instated on a foreignly published work of literature, one that is explicitly marketed to children and preteens.
This feels like a new chapter in Tanzanian media censorship that has potentially bleak implications in the future. However, the ministry’s imperative with this prohibition is straightforward and consistent with the government’s typically puritanical leanings.
Outrage over the existence of the LGBTQ+ community and their possible representation in the media Tanzanians consume is nothing particularly new, and intolerance is a widely acceptable stance amongst most average citizens.
Public officials, like the former Dar es Salaam regional commissioner Paul Makonda, have made anti-LGBTQ+ positions the cornerstone of their actionable political ideology. Accordingly, they have conducted public purges and shaming virtually unchallenged.
It is unsurprising that the vague indication of some pro-LGBTQ+ stance in this work of children’s fiction is the justification for a nationwide ban.
Robbing children’s future
What is truly unfortunate, however, is that I know many kids who use these books as an entry point to more serious reading.
Its unique blend of humour, charming sketches, and a genuinely distinct perspective on navigating adolescence are some of the series’ most important values, and to potentially rob future readers of the opportunity to explore these viral stories is a vastly more negative outcome than whatever moral win the ministry believes it’s getting with this decree.
This decision sets a potentially catastrophic precedent. For example, suppose the government is repeatedly allowed to impose widespread bans on books, films, and music based on entirely unfounded media interpretations without being challenged or reviewed. In that case, there is no end to the art and information future generations of Tanzanians could be deprived of.
I sincerely hope this incident is the last we see of this, but I very much doubt it!
Aggrey Mkumbo is a 20-year-old college student and writer. He’s available at AggreyKitila@gmail.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints of The Chanzo Initiative. Do you want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at email@example.com for further inquiries.