“I wanted to create characters that children from [shack] settlements and cramped households could relate to. I needed to write a story that would help educate these children on how to keep safe during this pandemic, even though this is much more difficult to do so when you are living in a one-room house. I also wanted children who are well-off to learn about the experiences of children less fortunate than them.”
These are the words of Nkosinathi Ngubane, 30, a writer and illustrator of a new educational children’s book, Duma Says: Wash Your Hands, Wear a Mask. The story centres on Duma, a young boy who notices that some people are not wearing face masks to help prevent the spread of Covid-19. Duma’s sister, Zinhle, then works out a plan to help keep their community safe: “I am going to make masks for the community who don’t have masks,” she says in the book. Duma issues a stern warning about Covid-19: “It is such a small virus but it can make us very sick if we are not careful.”
Duma Says is an easy-to-read, empowering story about the importance of staying safe during the coronavirus pandemic, not only children but the community as a whole.
Ngubane, who grew up in Durban but now lives in Protea Glen, Soweto, was born with microphthalmia. “This is an eye abnormality that arises before birth. It puts a strain on my seeing eye, giving it visual impairment,” he says. But “I was fortunate enough to have supportive and loving parents who did their best to make me comfortable”, particularly when he was teased by his classmates and misunderstood by teachers.
Ngubane’s parents moved him to the Open Air School in Durban for children with particular educational needs. “At Open Air School, I felt like I was home. I was finally in an environment where teachers understood my needs,” he says.
Content with his surroundings, he started to excel at drawing. “I won a couple of drawing competitions for my school and I would do murals whenever we were having a big event.” Drawing came naturally to Ngubane. “I was blessed with a very special gift. I started drawing Disney characters at the age of six. While all my friends were still producing stick figures, I effortlessly drew Timon and Pumbaa [the animated meerkat and warthog duo in Disney’s Lion King].”
Ngubane, who draws a lot on a computer, tries to protect his eyes when he works. “My computer has an anti-glare screen and I wear glasses. I also use eye drops, as I tend to work long hours. In 2016, I got myself a small Wacom Intuos [drawing] tablet and this has really helped with my work.”
In writing the book, Ngubane knew the story had to be relatable for it to work. The name Duma, for instance, is common in South Africa, he says. And so is the story. “Duma is just another kid living in a [shack] settlement in South Africa.” And Zinhle is like any older sister. “We wanted readers to feel they were in the story. That it was their story. And if Duma and Zinhle can survive, so can they,” Ngubane says.
The author researched and consulted with young and older people as he tried to find “a set of characters that would be relatable to most people in the country”. After Ngubane wrote the book, he cross-checked his facts with health professionals to make sure the content was accurate and in line with health standards concerning the virus.
Teaching children about Covid-19
How to tell a story that is informative about the coronavirus pandemic without causing confusion and fear? Ngubane acknowledges that the book had to be educational as well as empowering. To be able to communicate the message about Covid-19, Ngubane needed to understand his target audience: children.
“I knew that I had to produce a book that did not terrify children. It needed to be bright and colourful and friendly. I wanted to educate them through the use of positive facial expressions and bright colours in hopes that the main message, which is to keep safe, will come through without adding more fear around Covid-19.”
Stories are significant for developing children’s reading skills and their ability to think. But a lack of access to books in South Africa contributes to the literacy crisis in which grade 4 children are unable to read for meaning. Before writing the book, Ngubane saw a gap with a shortage of learning material on Covid-19 available for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. The book is geared towards four to 10-year-olds. “But in spirit, it is for everyone.”
With coronavirus infection rates and the death toll still high, many people fall victim to misinformation. Ngubane says the book “needed to be the voice of calm and a reminder of what we really should be doing to protect ourselves and our communities against the pandemic”.
It’s not only fake news that can create confusion, information overload can also be “a little overwhelming”, the author says. For this reason, the book “reduces this information overload to the basics around the pandemic: washing of hands with soap and water for 20 seconds, wearing a mask when going out, practise social distancing, covering the mouth when coughing and to keep away from the elderly as they are more vulnerable to the virus”.
Making the book accessible
The book is available free and in different languages. “We didn’t approach this book to make money. Nathi [Nkosinathi] and I identified a problem and we just went to work,” says publisher Azad Essa. They both recognised the importance of publishing the book in different languages to reach a wide audience.
“It is a children’s book and ideally it should be read in the language spoken in the home for it to have maximum impact, and often this is not English. Ideally, we should have it in all 11 languages, but we don’t have the capacity to do so. We thought it should, at the very least, be translated into isiZulu and isiXhosa. We hope that other translators will volunteer and take it forward.”
In the spirit of collaboration, Essa says, Pioneer Printers in Cape Town contacted them and offered to convert the book into Braille and distribute it to 20 schools for the visually impaired around the country.
Having attended the Open Air School, Ngubane says it would have been a big mistake if the book wasn’t available in Braille. “I am very thankful to Pioneer Printers for coming forward and translating the book for special needs children. My dream is for all children to have access to the same material, whether they are from a special needs school or from disadvantaged backgrounds or from elite backgrounds. A child should never miss an opportunity to learn.”
Additionally, researchers at the department of global health at Stellenbosch University will translate the book into Luganda, Tonga and Nyanja. “Now the book will also be translated into Kiswahili and Urdu and Arabic, but this only happened because readers got in touch and offered to help translate it,” says the publisher.
Ngubane and Essa acknowledge that a lack of access to books is a barrier for children in low-income areas. The hard work now is getting the book to people in a language and format to which they can relate, says Essa. The pair reached out to community organisations and asked for assistance.
“If they would take the book to parents and teachers and schools in the area, either through WhatsApp or email or even as a printout.” Essa made a call to the Department of Basic Education to “do their part in drawing attention to the material and ask their schools to use it. It’s free, after all.” The department has agreed to make the book available on its website.
Ngubane says the book is available on several websites for free, including the government’s coronavirus site, which is zero-rated and so doesn’t cost any data to access. It can also be found on the Social Bandit Media website, New York City’s Department of Education School Library system and the Centre for African Studies at Harvard University website.
The book can be purchased as well, from independent bookstore Ike’s Books in Durban and on Amazon. “All proceeds go to Open Air School in Durban, where I matriculated,” says Ngubane. “There will always be a shortage of resources for special needs children and during these difficult financial times, I wanted to give back in my small way and to show my gratitude to my alma mater for the wonderful years and for the work they do.”
Essa says they have also launched a crowdfunding campaign, “so that we can cover some of the costs of making this book”.
Seeing its importance as an educational resource, Minister of Health Zweli Mkhize is among those who have endorsed the book. It’s also available on his department’s website. “The reception has exceeded my expectations and I am truly grateful for the support,” says Ngubane.
What makes him even prouder is the fact that the book will be translated into Braille. “This means so much to me as I am a person living with visual impairment. I understand the needs of these communities and I am so thrilled to be contributing something to it.”