/ 14 June 2019

To read, play and eat cupcakes in Tembisa

(Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)
(Delwyn Verasamy/ M&G)

Storytelling is an ancient art that remains central to human communication. In a country such as South Africa, which is faced with a reading crisis, storytelling can serve as a tool to improve literacy.

It was the Tembisa Kiddies Book Club that transformed Ntsako Mathabathe (13) into the young woman she is today.

“Reading taught me so much,” she says of a book about peer pressure. “I had low self-esteem and some girls at school took advantage of me. They forced me to do things I did not want to do — until I read that book.”

Ntsako says she previously “could not read long words” but, with the encouragement of the volunteers at the book club, she gained the confidence she needed and reading is now her favourite activity.

Mpotseng Mathabathe (41) says her daughter has broadened her interest in reading, from school textbooks to novels.

The book club, which is in Tembisa on Gauteng’s East Rand, was founded a year ago by Nonhlanhla Dube and Lenah Sibisi. They’ve created an environment that makes learning fun. It is an inviting space that does not make children feel compelled to come to learn, but rather to do so willingly.

Sibisi says their approach is less rigid than that of schools. “There is some sort of a gap at school where the teachers aren’t reaching the kids 100%. Schools are also understaffed and under-resourced,” says Sibisi, adding that the club was established as a space where “it is cool to read and cool to learn”.

The book club has helped the Mathabathe family in other ways. A relieved Mpotseng says her relationship with her daughter has improved since Ntsako started attending the club. “I’m grateful to the book club. I nearly lost my kid.”

Dube and Sibisi decided to establish the book club at Dube’s home when they noticed a shortage of safe learning spaces for children in Tembisa. During the holidays, Sibisi noticed that children were left unattended and with nothing to occupy them. The book club began as a holiday programme, with sessions running for two hours a day for children between the ages of five and 16.

These days, book club sessions are held at different venues in Tembisa, including the Indigenous Dance Academy. Children can practise yoga, dancing or gym before they read and then discuss what they’ve just read.

Earlier this month, the club chose the theme, “My Dream”. The session was held at Dube’s home, which is littered with piles of books. The children read Casper Candlewacks in Death by Pigeon!, a debut novel by Ivan Brett, who is described as the funniest new voice in young fiction.

Dube says the aim of the session was to get children to start thinking about their dreams. “We were hoping that if they hadn’t started thinking about it yet, this session would help them.”

Ten-year-old Kutlwano Maruping said she wanted to be a teacher “because I want to teach children more about their future”.

The club is multilingual. At times the volunteers lack a strong command of some of the African languages spoken by the children, and English has to serve as the common language, which sometimes creates a barrier.

“We need more vernacular readers, we need people … who can encourage the kids to also want to learn their [own] languages,” Sibisi says, adding that the children aren’t always able to relate to the content in some books. She is calling for more volunteers who speak African languages to come forward.

The club is also a response to South Africa’s literacy crisis. After it was established, Sibisi realised how many children could not read. The challenge for the club, she says, has been “trying to fill the gap between the kids who can read and the kids who can’t”.

The club has formed a partnership with Thuthuka Primary School to run an after-school programme, in which Dube and Sibisi meet up with children from grades one to six each Thursday.

Back at the Mathabathe household, Ntsako’s six-year-old brother Mfumo is eager to share his thoughts. He snuggles up next to his mother and declares that reading is his favourite activity. He states proudly that he could already read when he started school.

The grade two pupil says he has made good friends at the book club, and that his friend Lonwabo helps him if he struggles with difficult words.

“I would read and play and we go back and read and play,” he says, adding cheerfully: “Sometimes they give us cupcakes.”

This article was first published in New Frame