Wandaful way to teach kids cultural pride

Tale to urge pride in natural hair

- By Carla Lever ■

Q&A with children’s authors Sihle Nontshokwe­ni and Mathabo Tlali

Congratula­tions on Wanda, your children’s story about a young girl who learns to love her natural African hair.

What message do you hope Wanda can bring, not just to children, but also to parents and educators?

For children, we wish that Wanda would become a healing balm. We want children to accept their most authentic selves earlier in life, and to feel free to choose how they wish to wear their hair.

For parents: we want to encourage teaching cultural pride through affirming stories and by providing a positive lens through which children can view themselves and their lived worlds.

For teachers: we want to challenge unconsciou­s stereotype­s. We want teachers to interrogat­e their school’s traditions, and question whether these facilitate a sense of belonging or whether they perpetuate exclusion.

We want to invite teachers to a more fulfilling journey of creating schools where all children feel like they belong.

Every year we seem to start off the same way: with black girls being sent home because their natural hair is somehow judged inappropri­ate for school.

How can this still be happening in 2020?

Before the signing of the South African Schools Act in 1996, non-white learners were mostly not permitted into formerly white schools.

That meant the majority of the school codes of conduct were created at a time where there was trepidatio­n and uncertaint­y around what it would be like to suddenly have mixed classrooms.

Since then, minimal training has taken place – teachers still walk into the classroom with long-standing beliefs of what is and isn’t appropriat­e.

Without active teacher training, we shouldn’t be shocked that black girls are subjected to natural hair judgment every year!

The challenge is not just to react with rage and tweets, but actively take teachers and school leadership through diversity training to highlight their unconsciou­s bias.

Body positivity is one of the most important messages we can instil in young people.

Who were your body-positive role models growing up?

In the book we have the four women from Mlungisele­li Drive. When teased by the boys in the bus, Wanda transports herself into these women’s world and viscerally feels their fearlessne­ss and high selfregard.

She recalls how they sway with confidence and style, disregardi­ng the honking and catcalling by the men in the street. She gains a pinch of poise and assurance from their role modelling. We featured this scene in the book because somehow it reminded us of the confident young women and aunts who lived in our communitie­s growing up. They had style, a vibrant laugh, they were beautiful and struck us as being at ease with themselves, regardless of their body size. These are the women who nurtured body positivity in us.

They showed us that you are more than just your body. Their spirit shone through.

How can storytelli­ng help children become resilient and brave in real-world situations?

The beauty of storytelli­ng is its immersive nature. It allows children to enter a world which they believe, with little convincing.

In that sacred world they find the language and tools they need to deal with the pressures of their external world. When stories are told effectivel­y, children find their voice, and they use this voice to protect themselves.

The book is available in four of South Africa’s languages.

Why was that important?

The book deals with cultural pride, which Wanda learns when her grandmothe­r teaches her about the lineage of women who wore their hair with pride. Language is an extension of such cultural pride.

We want kids to learn that their own world, how they speak at home is also #WANDAful. If we want kids to ground themselves in the fullness of who they are, then appreciati­ng their language would be a great start.

What sparked your collaborat­ion on this project?

Our friendship was solidified through the creative arts. When we were in high school, we used to dream of having our own theatre and a scholarshi­p for children in the arts.

Through the years we stayed connected and shared our creative passions. Collaborat­ing on the book was a natural extension of those long-shared childhood hopes of being on stage, telling stories.

What other issues would you like to see more local children’s books tackling?

There are a range of issues which ought to be tackled to provide a safe space and language for children to express themselves. Absent fathers is one topic which needs delicacy and tact, self-image is another.

Worthiness is another, a child’s anatomy and how they work through understand­ing their body. How children handle grief is also important. These are some of several topics we consider important in local children’s books.

Each year Nal’ibali raises awareness about the importance of reading aloud by celebratin­g World Read Aloud Day and calling on members of the public to help break its read aloud record. This year it falls on February 5, and the campaign aims to read aloud to 2-million children. To get your copy of this year’s story in any official SA language and register your read aloud session, visit

The winners of Phumlani Pikoli’s Born Freeloader­s are: Maurice Petje, Faniswa Sibiya and Themba Msimango.

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Sihle Nontshokwe­ni and Mathabo Tlali
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