Storytelling heartbeat of the Mokgoko family

THE year was 1961. Our Standard 2 classroom was large but cramped, there were so many of us. I remember the brief visits the warm sun rays would pay us.

The dull, hulking excuses for desks cast shadows against the floor. The loud chit chatter, giggles and hubbub would always die down when Mrs Machaba took a seat in front of the class, holding the bright orange Royal Reader in her hands.

This was always our favourite time of the day, even though there were never enough Royal Readers to go around. I remember how captured my imagination. It was my first read. Most of the stories that we read in the Royal Reader were written in English but from time to time, Mrs Machaba would tell us stories in xiTsonga, our mother tongue. She had an incredible way with words and humour, like the time she read to us about the songbird that was robbed of its loaf of brown bread by a scheming rabbit. I remember how that story invoked all of my five senses.

I have fond memories of our home, another opportunity to read. My father used to sell newspapers and Drum magazines in order to augment his income. I remember how my brothers and I would eagerly wait for my father to come back from work, so that we could rummage his satchel in search of leftover newspapers and magazines. In those days, newspapers sold faster than magazines and my father was kind enough to save the remnants for us. My brothers and I would take turns practising our reading skills by reading articles to each other. It was fun!
Storytelling was the heartbeat of my family. My mother had a natural knack for turning mundane everyday life in our neighbourhood into fantastic storytelling material that was nothing short of dramatic.

Once a year, my brothers and I would forsake the city and venture to the hot and arid farmlands in the Northern Province to visit our paternal grandparents, where my gogo would feed us a healthy dose of traditional folklore.
Every night after supper, she would gather us around the fire in her outdoor kitchen. was gogo’s call to us to signal the beginning of the story.

All this experience proved to be useful when I became a parent and a teacher. I found that storytelling and story reading was a powerful tool of communication. It helped me to understand my pupils better.

I was able to choose books according to their level of understanding. The idea is to get them to a level where they become independent readers.
I remember with nostalgia a project that I founded and directed in Alexandra – SPEAK Barefoot Teachers. At the heart of the project were young activists from the 1976 era. When schools in South Africa were semi-dysfunctional as a result of the political landscape of the late ’80s, the Barefoot Teachers took a stand. They engaged some community schools within Johannesburg such as Dr Knak Combined School, where they used storytelling and story reading as a method of teaching. The pupils, who were nine to 10 years old, had experienced trauma due to the violence and brutality that was prevalent at the time. The Barefoot Teachers went into that situation and worked with the pupils, encouraging them to relate their stories through storytelling. The product of this somewhat therapeutic process was a booklet titled
which unfortunately was never published. At the height of the political struggle, the Barefoot Teachers’ hunger to know more about the struggle grew. With that, they read voraciously, mostly hidden and banned books such as Chinua Achebe’s and by Beverley Naidoo, which brought a fresh understanding of what they were going through. Reading became therapeutic for them. As they read, the Barefoot Teachers became critical thinkers and critical readers who acquired the skill of interrogating every piece of work that their searching eyes and hearts came across.

This skill did not go unnoticed and earned them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of inputting during the beginning and final stages of an acclaimed author’s manuscript. South African-born author Naidoo found the critical input from the Barefoot Teachers to be invaluable for the book that she was writing titled.

The culture of reading needs to return. I call for teachers, grandparents, parents, youth and children to bring this culture back, in order for us to build human capital for social transformation.

I remember watching Malala Yousafzai (the Pakistani teenage rights activist) on TV, receiving her United Nations award. She said in her acceptance speech that “one child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world”. That’s true. ý Martha Mokgoko is an educational facilitator and author. She lives in Johannesburg.

  • Being told stories and being read to helps children develop the rich storehouse of language, grammar and vocabulary they need to bring to texts when learning to read and write. Get your FREE Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment supplement tomorrow in The Herald or visit and mobisite, for more storytelling tips and children’s stories in a range of SA languages.

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