Ntsako Mathabathe, 13, is a soft-spoken child who used to be bullied at school. She found it difficult to open up to her mother Mpotseng Mathabathe, who felt her child was drifting away. But now, a confident Ntsako says: “I am better. Before, I had low self-esteem … I believe in myself now.”
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 also serve as a tool for improving literacy. It was the Tembisa Kiddies Book Club that transformed Ntsako into the young woman she is today. “Reading taught me so much,” she says as she talks about a book she recently read 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.”
For Ntsako, reading, and what she has learnt from the volunteers at the book club, allowed her to identify what she was going through to be able to trust herself and gain self-confidence. An added advantage was that her reading skills improved.
She says that she previously “could not read long words”, but with the encouragement of the volunteers, she gained the confidence to express herself enough to engage with books. Reading is now Ntsako’s favourite activity. Her mum has noticed that she’s broadened her interest in reading from school textbooks to novels. As a result of Ntsako’s new-found love for reading, her mum says she has opened up and now even makes jokes.
The Tembisa Kiddies Book Club, on Gauteng’s East Rand, was founded a year ago by Nonhlanhla Dube and Lenah Sibisi. The team now includes Itumeleng Skosana, a volunteer. They created the informal learning environment to make learning fun and to serve as an inviting space that does not make children feel compelled to come to learn but rather to do so willingly.
Sibisi notes that their approach differs from that of schools in that it is less rigid. “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”.
For the Mathabathes, the book club has contributed to improving relations, especially between mother and daughter. Mpotseng, 41, says her relationship with her daughter has improved since Ntsako started attending the book club. As she speaks, she flashes a set of fingernails that have recently been manicured by her daughter. According to Mpotseng, Ntsako and her are more like friends now.
The atmosphere in the small living room in the Mathabathe household is emotionally charged as mother and daughter struggle to contain their emotions. Finally, a relieved Mpotseng says: “I’m grateful to the book club. I nearly lost my kid.”
Filling a gap
It was seeing families like the Mathabathes and noticing a lack of safe learning spaces for children in Tembisa that led Dube and Sibisi to establish the book club at Dube’s home.
During school holidays, Sibisi noticed that children in the community were left unattended with nothing to do. And so the book club began as a holiday programme with sessions running for two hours daily for children between the ages of 5 and 16.
These days, book club sessions are held at different venues in Tembisa, including the Indigenous Dance Academy. During sessions, children can practise yoga, dance or gym before they read and engage in intense discussions on what they’ve 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. Kutlwano Maruping, 10, shared what she loved about the session. “I want to be a teacher because I want to teach children more about their future.” During this session, the children read Casper Candlewacks in Death by Pigeon!
According to Dube, 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,” she says.
Tembisa Kiddies Book Club is a multilingual club that uses isiZulu, Sepedi, Xitsonga, English and other languages. However, 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 – something which, according to Sibisi, creates something of a barrier.
“We need more vernacular readers, we need people … who can encourage the kids to also want to learn their languages,” she says, adding that the children aren’t always able relate to the content in English books.
Sibisi calls for more willing volunteers who speak different African languages to come forward.
The club is also a response from community members to something broader: South Africa’s literacy crisis. After the club 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 for an after-school programme, in which Dube and Sibisi meet with learners from grades 1 to 6 every Thursday.
Back at the Mathabathe household, Ntsako’s younger brother Mfumo, 6, is eager to share his thoughts too. He snuggles next to his mum and declares that reading is his favourite activity. He states proudly that he could already read when he started school.
The grade 2 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 we play,” he says, adding cheerfully: “Sometimes they give us cupcakes.”