Our stories must be told in our own voices and languages

Reading is fundamental to a child's development as it underpins everything we do in life.
Reading is fundamental to a child's development as it underpins everything we do in life.
Image: 123RF

The first thing I ever read, where reading is the following of a story and or a narrative, was a newspaper.

I was about seven years old or so, in in the early nineties. Later, as a teenager, I would find comfort in Reader’s Digest anthologies and romance novels.

I never really got the sense that there was something wrong with the trajectory of my reading until I traded the farmyard of Motse Maria High School for the big city lights surrounding Wits University.

The first time I heard of Sweet Valley High I dismissed it as one person’s experience and then that name kept popping up everywhere. Until I could no longer ignore what was clear, other children had a curated reading experience. No one had curated mine.

Which begs the question, what were black children reading back in the 90’s?  Luckily children from the nineties are my agemates and I am able to hold this conversation with them. And from those conversations it has been clear that the majority were not reading, and the little that were like me had no access to age appropriate reading material, and where they did it was nothing that looked and sounded like them.

One such conversation was with Nangamso Ka Nomahlubi, the author of a just published children’s book, uQwenga.

I asked her about the first book she read.

Three Little Pigs , a gift from her Grade one teacher, she tells me.

“It was in English and in Grade 1 I didn’t understand English much. I still have this vivid picture of her seating with me at the back of our rented two-bedroom house, with her translating for me every word.”

She was luckier than me in that she had easy access to reading material but like me suffered the newspaper for literature misfortune.

“I grew up reading  a lot because everyone was a reader at home. I read everything from my sister’s Mills and Boons to Mama’s ‘The Voice’ by Gabriel Okara. The publication I read the most though is The Daily Dispatch, our provincial daily newspaper.”

Reading, for children, is a fundamental tool in shaping their worldview, what is important and is worth their time, but also who has authority. In our conversation Nomahlubi also touched on this and mentions that her decision to write Qwenga was  because she wanted to contribute to the movement of telling our stories our way. “

“I have young nieces who need reading material that affirms them. This story is about a dog who grew up in town and trying to adjust to a village life. So many people have gone through that. I wanted to engage the young readers on that difficult transition and the importance of family values.” She says.

When you take a look at the children’s stories in book-stores, you will realise many are written by non-speakers of those indigenous languages

She wrote the book in isiXhosa to further cement that she wanted its readers to see and hear themselves in the book.

“Representation is everything. It removes so much doubt. I was deliberate about the language too. It’s important that we tell stories in our own languages. When you take a look at the children’s stories in book-stores, you will realise many are written by non-speakers of those indigenous languages. The indigenous speakers merely serve as translators. This means still, we are not owning that space. I wanted my nieces to read an IsiXhosa book written by an isiXhosa speaker.”

Nal’ibali who believe that a well-established culture of reading can be a real game-changer for education in South Africa, also reiterate that all children and adults need to understand what they are listening to, or reading, for it to be meaningful and enjoyable – which is crucial for raising readers.

She is right about the translation issue in children’s books. Publishers use white run one stop translating agencies. In the end meaning, tone and flavour are lost in the exercise.

Where are we as a country with publishing for children? Not where we should be. The success story is that  is that black children weren’t being catered for at all twenty years ago, they are now, but with difficulty.

A quick scan of the children’s books charts will tell you that the only local publisher that is in the top 100 is Lapa, which means Afrikaans. Everything else is international, a big failure on the retailing part of the value chain. Where local publishing is concerned they continuously refuse to come to the party to have shops that are representative of the work being done and the majority population of this country.

While the market here is still very white saturated, there are publishers who are taking risks to publish to meet this need, and self-publishers like Ka Nomahlubi who are not waiting for a publisher to do the important work that needs to be done.

We need deliberate choice and actions from everyone, the reader , the buyer and the publishing sector. The current offering is not enough, and not original in many parts. We are a country rich in story telling we just need to work together to allow our children to grow up as wholesome individuals who know and understand their experiences to be real and valid. 


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