One child, one pen, one book
Reading culture must return, writes Martha Mokgoko
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
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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