Through a child’s eyes

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.

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Denise Rack Louw
Guest Author

Related stories

Eat your words, teachers!

Denise Rack Louw reviews Could Do Better: School Reports of the Great and the Good edited by Catherine Hurley (Pocket Books, R116) Teachers should...

Literary landscapes

This book would make an excellent guide on any journey in the Eastern Cape, as well as a good-read resource for the class or...

The Black Knight gives back

The successful development of Blair Atholl School, north of Johannesburg, is an achievement that golfer Gary Player holds almost as dear as the many...

Wanted: children’s books in the vernacular

Generations of South Africans have grown up thinking that reading is something you only do in English. But it's high time to change all that, writes Denise Rack Louw

Book world in Africa

Hosted in Africa for the first time, the 29th World Congress of the International Board on Books for Young People is just around the corner. The event is an assembly of writers, illustrators, publishers, children's book enthusiasts and more, reports Denise Rack Louw.

Voices in the wilderness

Ten years' work and 8 000km of travel have gone into researching and writing a new book that focuses on the "literature of place", writes Denise Rack Louw.

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Why anti-corruption campaigns are bad for democracy

Such campaigns can draw attention to the widespread presence of the very behaviour they are trying to stamp out — and subconsciously encourage people to view it as appropriate

Tax, wage bill, debt, pandemic: Mboweni’s tightrope budget policy statement

The finance minister has to close the jaws of the hippo and he’s likely to do this by tightening the country’s belt, again.

SA justice delays extradition of paedophile to UK

Efforts to bring Lee Nigel Tucker to justice have spanned 16 years and his alleged victims have waited for 30 years

Former state security minister Bongo back in court

Bongo and his co-accused will appear in the Nelspruit magistrate’s court in Mpumalanga over charges of fraud, corruption and theft

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday