We want to warn school children against the danger of Aids. That is why AIDS KILLS is written on the wall of the school,” writes Bukekile Banjwa, a 13-year-old author from a south Soweto ‘squatter camp”, in a glossy new book entitled The Story of My Life: South Africa through the Eyes of its Children, published by Kwela.
In the book — compiled by Han Lans of Amsterdam, with a foreword by Nelson Mandela — 12 South African schoolchildren from diverse cultural and socio-economic backgrounds tell their stories in words and in colour photographs they have taken. Several express a desire to participate in the fight against HIV/Aids, and medicine and teaching are the most popular future career choices.
The Story of My Life unveils disparate lifestyles, hopes and dreams, pleasures and problems. But for me the most moving theme is an oft-reiterated hunger for education. The young authors see this as the key not only to achieving personal goals, but also to being of service in the community.
Mohau ‘Director” Tshabalala, from the Kroonstad area, articulates this dual ambition, saying: ‘I wish to be educated because when I’m grown up I want to be somebody in society. I am educating myself so that I can become a doctor and heal people.”
Sadly, several stories also reflect problems encountered in the quest for education. Mohau, for example, of necessity attends a distant farm school: ‘I stay with my aunt because it is too far to walk from my parents’ house,” he says. His school, which caters for learners from grade one to grade six, has two classrooms and two teachers; and the pupils tend a vegetable garden that supports school feeding.
School feeding is also alluded to by contributors — like Fernando Luwango of the Northern Cape, who says: ‘The school sometimes receives money for the feeding scheme and then we get food during break.” His photographs show that these occasions are high points on the children’s calendar: the much-anticipated break-time repast often represents the first food of the day.
Some children also face other obstacles. For instance, one of Fernando’s photographs shows about 30 pupils sitting on school benches outside a corrugated-iron structure that is clearly not rain-proof. The caption reads: ‘When we arrived for school everything was soaking wet … Miss Nel let us carry all the benches outside so that they could dry off. We had our classes outside.”
Climatic conditions in the Northern Cape are harsh, and the school sometimes has to be closed because of sandstorms or rainstorms, or because 42° temperatures in the corrugated-iron classrooms are simply insupportable.
Nevertheless Fernando cheerfully writes: ‘School is enjoyable for me and I want to pass matric. Then I, too, want to teach learners.” This is surely the kind of ‘positive attitude” that Lans says inspired him to compile this engrossing, and sometimes moving, book.
Lans, who has visited South Africa several times on photographic assignments, wanted to investigate ‘how it was possible for people … to live peacefully together in one country” despite cultural differences and material disparities. He believed ‘children would provide the most honest and open answer”.
Accordingly, with the assistance of Annari van der Merwe of Kwela Books, he located 12 children aged between 10 and 13, from different geographical areas and diverse traditions. He provided them with cameras, film and some photographic hints; then he left them to get on with the job of documenting their lives.
The resulting narratives aptly and engagingly demonstrate — as Mandela notes in his foreword — ‘how sharing information can advance understanding” and create respect. Lans tells me he is currently planning a sequel in which the same children will update their stories five years hence.