Last Saturday, the founder of children’s bookstore Ethnikids invited me to Sandton Library with Nomsa Mdlalose for a morning of storytelling and readings to children.
Ethnikids was founded because a group of friends, tired of seeing the same Cinderellas and Prince Charmings in children’s books, were looking for more relatable stories for their African children. Aware that other parents were likely facing the same problem, they also decided to sell these books through an online bookstore. But on Saturday, they had invited us —and as many children and guardians as possible — to the library, where we would tell stories and sign books.
In the children’s section of the Sandton Library, there is a sunken area where children and a storyteller can sit. It is otherworldly, as well as being a wonderful place for storytelling. I started with my retelling of Rapunzel, called Refilwe.
I am never quite sure who has more fun at these things: me or my young audience. Some years back, while retelling this same story to children in Kampala, a guitarist friend brought his instrument and started strumming while I was doing a chant. So it was delightful teaching the children in Sandton Library the same chant, “Refilwe, Refilwe let down your locks/ So I can climb the scraggy rocks.” Later I shared one of my favourite stories from the children’s anthology Story Story, Story Come. A fun and beautiful morning was had by all.
But as I walked out with my friends and their children, I did a double-take and the magic of the morning bubble burst. At the entrance, was a glass case full of the librarians’ recommended books. There was not a single book by a South African or even an African. All titles were written by American authors.
Now, as I like saying, a good book transcends borders and is relatable to everyone. If the Real Readers of Sandton like Danielle Steele, then more power to them. But our stories matter too. I wonder how anyone can be certain they don’t love Angela Makholwa or Fiona Snyckers or Damon Galgut or Masande Ntshanga or any number of local writers when the library is deliberately not even exposing them to these books? If I learnt anything from conducting school and university visits all over South Africa, it’s that there is a hunger for local literature and, where there is no exposure to it, people assume that it does not exist.
Indeed, I was pleasantly surprised later on the same day when a young man from Venda came to chat to me. “I remember you,” he said. “You came to my school when I was in year 10 to donate books.” He has been a reader ever since.
Beyond making sure that local stories are promoted, there seems to also be a degree of self-hate in not featuring local work. I have visited my fair share of libraries when I travel, and I have yet to enter one in the United States or the United Kingdom where the bulk of the Librarians’ Recommended List are books from South Africa or Africa. Yet our own libraries, like some of our bookstores, seem to sneer at homegrown literature.
I would have assumed that a decision-maker at the library, having okayed an event such as the Ethnikids reading morning, would have had the idea to try to add some local literature for the parents. Sadly, it appears that such a glaringly obvious action is not obvious to them.
There is talk in the government of increasing literacy and public libraries should be key points for action. The R48 annual membership fee may be a small amount but there should be a reason that people are paying it. It cannot be that people are visiting libraries for free WiFi rather than to get books for reading and yet we mourn high illiteracy levels.
I hope the staff at Sandton Library and other libraries take note and start becoming proactive about giving exposure to more local reading material.