One child, one pen, one book

Read­ing cul­ture must re­turn, writes Martha Mok­goko

Sunday World - - Special Project - Martha Mok­goko is an ed­u­ca­tional con­sul­tant and au­thor. She lives in Joburg.

THE year was 1961. Our Stan­dard 2 class­room was large but cramped; there were many of us.

I re­mem­ber the brief vis­its the warm rays of the sun would pay us. The dull, hulk­ing ex­cuses for desks cast shad­ows against the floor. The loud chit-chat, gig­gles and hub­bub would al­ways die down when Mrs Mach­aba sat in front of the class, hold­ing the bright or­ange Royal Read­ers. This was al­ways our favourite time of the day. I re­mem­ber how Lit­tle Red Rid

ing Hood cap­tured my imag­i­na­tion. It was my first read. Most of the sto­ries we read in the Royal Reader were writ­ten in English, but from time to time, Mrs Mach­aba would tell us sto­ries in Xit­songa, our mother tongue.

She had an in­cred­i­ble way with words and hu­mour, like the time she read to us about the song­bird that was robbed of its loaf of brown bread by a schem­ing rab­bit. I re­mem­ber how that story in­voked all five my senses.

My fa­ther used to sell news­pa­pers and Drum mag­a­zines to aug­ment his in­come.

I re­mem­ber how my broth­ers and I would ea­gerly wait for my fa­ther to come back from work, so that we could rum­mage through his satchel in search of left­over news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines. In those days, news­pa­pers sold faster than mag­a­zines and my fa­ther saved the rem­nants for us. My broth­ers and I would take turns prac­tis­ing our read­ing skills by read­ing ar­ti­cles to each other.

Sto­ry­telling was the heart­beat of my fam­ily. My mother had a nat­u­ral knack for turn­ing mun­dane ev­ery­day life in our neigh­bour­hood into fan­tas­tic sto­ry­telling ma­te­rial.

Once a year, my broth­ers and I would go to Lim­popo to visit our pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents, where my gogo would feed us a healthy dose of tra­di­tional folk­lore.

Af­ter sup­per, she would gather us around the fire in her out­door kitchen. “Garingani wa garingani” was gogo’s call to us to sig­nal the be­gin­ning of the story.

All this ex­pe­ri­ence proved to be use­ful when I be­came a par­ent and a teacher. I found that sto­ry­telling and story read­ing was a pow­er­ful tool of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. It helped me to un­der­stand my pupils bet­ter.

The idea is to get them to a level where they be­come in­de­pen­dent read­ers. I re­mem­ber a project that I founded and di­rected in Alexan­dra

– SPEAK The Bare­foot Teach­ers. At the heart of the project were young ac­tivists from the 1976 era.

When schools in South Africa were semi-dys­func­tional as a re­sult of the po­lit­i­cal land­scape of the late 1980s, The Bare­foot Teach­ers took a stand. They en­gaged some com­mu­nity schools in Joburg where they used sto­ry­telling and story read­ing as a method of teach­ing.

The pupils, who were aged nine and 10, had ex­pe­ri­enced trauma be­cause of the vi­o­lence and bru­tal­ity preva­lent at the time.

The Bare­foot Teach­ers worked with the pupils, en­cour­ag­ing them to re­late their sto­ries through sto­ry­telling. The prod­uct of this ther­a­peu­tic process was a book­let ti­tled

Our People, which un­for­tu­nately was never pub­lished.

The Bare­foot Teach­ers read vo­ra­ciously, mostly hid­den and banned books such as Chinua Achebe’s

Things Fall Apart and Jour­ney to Joburg by South African-born au­thor Bev­er­ley Naidoo, which brought a fresh un­der­stand­ing of what they were go­ing through.

As they read, The Bare­foot Teach­ers be­came crit­i­cal thinkers and crit­i­cal read­ers who ac­quired the skill of in­ter­ro­gat­ing ev­ery piece of work they came across.

This skill did not go un­no­ticed and earned them a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity of in­putting dur­ing the be­gin­ning and fi­nal stages of an ac­claimed au­thor’s man­u­script.

Naidoo found the crit­i­cal in­put from The Bare­foot Teach­ers to be in­valu­able for her book No Turn­ing

Back.

The cul­ture of read­ing needs to re­turn. I call on teach­ers, grand­par­ents, par­ents, young people and chil­dren to bring this cul­ture back, for us to build hu­man cap­i­tal for so­cial trans­for­ma­tion.

I re­mem­ber watch­ing Malala Yousafzai, the teenage Pak­istani ed­u­ca­tion rights ac­tivist, on TV, when she re­ceived an award from the UN. She said in her ac­cep­tance speech that one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world.

That ’ s true.

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