About two months ago my little boy who started school in January this year looked at the wall clock in his room with a serious look on his face. He frowned a little bit. And for a second I thought my little boy is about to tell time for the very first time in his life. It’s a wall clock decorated with the animated characters Woody and Buzz from one of his favourite movies, Toy Story. As I continued dressing him without wanting to give away that I’m rooting for him to give this thing a try, he opened his mouth, carefully mouthing the first word, and it took him a while before any sound came out. “We come to play” he said.
I looked at the wall clock, right next to Woody and Buzz were the words “We came to play”. It didn’t matter that he got the tense of the middle word wrong, I was ecstatic. I wanted to shout, to scream: “My boy can read!” It didn’t matter that he’s still got no concept of time, that will come later, to me, by reading those few words he was confirming that he is getting ready to join that privileged class of people on our continent and indeed the world who can read.
I have recently been involved in social media discussions with a few friends who are consumers of the written word. I have learnt that some of South Africa’s best authors struggle to sell their books. Whatever the reason for that, I’m really concerned that our low literacy levels have indeed translated into an artificially reduced love for books. More worrying for me though is that even amongst the classes of people who are literate, our love for books, especially books by black South African authors is really low.
In my mind, our love for books should be unmatched. Yes we cannot all love books but the majority of us should. The way I see it, a people with our history should not have an option of not loving the written word. I’m almost tempted to say our love for books should be mandatory, not an optional hobby. We owe it to ourselves to discover that which we were denied for decades, or even centuries.
I have to admit, my own love for reading was purely coincidental. I grew up in a large family and unlike other people who love literature I was not born into a world rich in books. I struggle to this day to recall what Cinderella and other children’s classics are all about. I didn’t have access to those. Any of the classics that I read were books that an older cousin had for his English Literature classes. Danny the Champion of The World, The Big Friendly Giant and Oliver Twist come to mind.
But the first assault on my literary senses came in the form of a Tsonga language book, Xisomisana. I read that book at about age eleven, and even though it was a book prescribed for a class 4 or 5 years ahead of me, I learnt that a book can move you from this world we inhabit into a totally new world where you are at the mercy of the author. I was quite a sensitive child and I remember crying copious amounts of tears at Xisomisana’s fate, an orphaned girl who had so much trouble in her life because she seemed to have no one in the world.
By the time I went to boarding school to start my high school and coming into contact with a library for the first time I knew that this world, this physical world wasn’t our only option. There existed a world which could be accessed through reading books. I plunged myself into series’ like the Hardy Boys and read them sequentially that I felt that I knew their world, a world so far away from mine. By my middle year in high school I had discovered James Hardly Chase and Sidney Sheldon. Material I would not recommend for an impressionable fourteen-year-old mind but books nonetheless.
Imagine my joy when I learnt of the trials and tribulations of Mariam Makeba, Don Mattera and other South African artists at the hands of the apartheid government, their years in exile, forced removals and all that was going on then. I learnt of culturally iconic places like Sophiatown throw books. I learnt of Nelson Mandela and his speech in the dock through banned books. I escaped my depression, which hadn’t been diagnosed at the time, through burying myself in a good paperback.
I remember the sadness which would come over me on school holidays at the realisation that I was running out of paperbacks faster than I was running out of holiday time. I had no qualms about being labelled a ‘bookworm’ at some stage in high school. Books that I could lay my hands on were my life.
I regret that I had no adult to guide me towards reading material that could develop me as I grew up because young and impressionable as I was, I realise now that with more guidance I could have discovered more authors who could talk to my age at the different points in my life. I could maybe have developed a more positive approach to poetry and other disciplines.
Of paramount importance though is that books gave me the idea that world is so much more than our physical surroundings. That’s why I find it so difficult to understand that there are people who can read, and should read but don’t.
I honestly believe that the saddest thing that can happen to any individual is to be denied the opportunity to learn how to read. If there was a magic wand that I could use to transform the world I’m afraid I would use it to make everyone literate. Imagine me being asked that not so bright question that is asked of most beauty pageants winners (they still do don’t they): “What are you going to do to change the world during your reign?”, “TEACH THE WHOLE WORLD TO READ!!” would be my answer all the time. That’s why that education activist, the teenager Malaala Yousufzai is my hero. she discovered at a very tender age that books can save the world.
I have at various points in my life gone through dry patches of depression when it has become so difficult to do anything. The first sign that things were improving has always been the return of my need to read. To get buried into a good paperback and forget the world.
I hope I’ll have the presence of mind to feed my kids’ minds the right books at various points in their development and that they will develop a very healthy love for reading. I beamed with pride recently when my boy brought home a little certificate that he has completed 50 kiddies books for his age group, the little certificate states, “Today a Reader, Tomorrow a Leader”. I can’t argue with that.
I think my obsession with the written word might be clouding my judgement when it comes to a lot of what I observe about our society, mostly African society. Recently there was a discovery of an 18th century Shipwreck off the coast of Cape Town that was confirmed as a slave carrier from Mozambique headed towards Portugal, filled with hundreds of Africans destined for a life of slavery in Portugal.
The media commentary that I heard or read on the discovery labelled it as “fascinating, intriguing, a breakthrough”. None of those voices were African. They were voices of an observer of Africa. It pained me that none of our people have put themselves in a position to cry out and shout “That’s not fascinating, it’s a painful monument to the lives of all those Africans who were shipped off as slaves to continents where to this they are still fighting for full citizenship”.
I cannot see a people who have a deep love for reading letting that happen to their memory. It has been my untested observation that all the indigenous peoples of the world whose cultural heritages are disappearing have been deprived of books.
I digress. The point I’m making here is if enough of us had an appetite for books this discovery would be another chapter in those books, books that we would write with respect about our own past. Our love for books should not be optional. Our history, our continent and our future demands that we develop an insatiable appetite for books.