The Herald editor Heather Robertson
LAST year, when he was in Grade R, my six-year-old son’s teacher asked him to draw what made him happy. He could have drawn his latest television superhero obsession, Aang the last of the Airbenders, or he could have drawn himself performing his favourite activity, dangling off a jungle gym.
What he drew was me reading a bedtime story, him cuddled up in my arms.
Why are stories important for literacy development?
How you can get involved?
The Project for The Study of Alternative Education in South Africa (PRAESA) and Avusa Media (owners of The Herald) have teamed up to collaborate with literacy organisations, communities and individuals already actively involved in promoting reading and writing to:
For more information go to:
I was amazed and moved to tears because this nocturnal ritual of ours began when he was a four-month-old infant and has grown from touch-and-feel animal books to Niki Daly’s Zanzibar Road and Dr Seuss’s zany Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz to The Cat in the Hat and The Lorax; to Roald Dahl’s Enormous Crocodile and Charlie and The Chocolate Factory; Salmon Rushdie’s Luca and The Fire of Life and children’s encyclopaedias to stories from our heads that we make up as we go along.
Stories have become our thing, our special time together, just like they have become a thing for my 14-month-old son, whose eyes light up when I read him his Hoppity Hop Rabbit book.
I am not sure whether those Egyptian inventors of the hieroglyph knew what they had unleashed on the planet when they first started representing words with their ancient script thousands of years ago, but in my family, reading and stories are an integral part of who we are. They start off as pure, unfettered fun; our connection to each other and move into us touching other worlds and cultures beyond our wildest dreams.
The joy of reading was passed on to me by my late grandmother, who I used to snuggle up to when I was six, nagging her to “tell me a story from your head”.
From her, I learnt of the different country she inhabited when she was young, the pre-apartheid melting pot of Salt River and District Six in Cape Town, where the gangsters used to protect the children and neighbours shared their last cup of milk or sugar.
I was blessed with another storyteller, my uncle Dorrie, who grew up dirt poor on a farm on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast. He ended up teaching himself to read and write, passed matric at 40, and went on to study further and became a respected lawyer.
Despite his incredible achievement, he was always proud of his peasant roots and would regale us with stories, like the one of his special cow whose udders produced chocolate, strawberry and lime-flavoured milk.
My mother added to my story circle by introducing us to the Sydenham Library in Durban, where I first discovered The Cat in the Hat and was exposed to her band of merry women led by the librarian, Mrs Jeannie Noel, who staged a protest against the Nationalist Party’s expropriation of houses in Villa Road.
My mom also ensured we were the only kids in our neighbourhood who got a book instead of a box of fireworks at Diwali or Guy Fawkes.
I also cannot recall a time when my father, who is a great raconteur (so good it’s difficult to discern whether his tales are fact or fiction), did not start his day with a newspaper, Time magazine or novel. It is, thus, not surprising that playing with words and testing their weight on the world became my hobby and ultimately my profession.
The love of reading led me to the love of writing, and provided me with an outlet to express myself and engage with the world I live in – no holds barred.
For one whose life has been so enriched by books and stories, it with a great sense of sadness that I realise this privilege and pleasure is not shared by many of my fellow South Africans.
It is a tragedy that a province, steeped in as rich and diverse a cultural heritage as the Eastern Cape with its Khoi, Xhosa, British settler and Afrikaner influences – and which has spawned some of our country’s greatest thinkers and writers like Olive Schreiner, Govan Mbeki, Nelson Mandela, Etienne van Heerden, Steve Biko, Zakes Mda and Athol Fugard – should have Grade 3 children scoring a paltry 39% and Grade 6s an even more disturbing 29% for literacy as measured by the Annual National Assessment results.
It is outrageous that hundreds of thousands of children who are born with just as much latent potential as my sons and I have been denied the liberating experience that reading for pleasure brings.
There are many reasons for this. One of the chief culprits is illiteracy – an offshoot of the dismal apartheid education system which was replaced by an equally dysfunctional democratic education system where reading is taught by rote learning, libraries are bare and books are scarce.
Another culprit is a-literacy, people who can read but don’t. Radio and television have usurped the role of families as the primary storytellers, turning an activity that was once creative and communal into a passive activity, where families are the mere receptors of pre-packaged stories produced by the experts.
Parents are equally to blame for handing over their fundamental role as nurturing storytellers to teachers, television, the internet and peer groups.
A child denied the joy, that magical key of reading for fun, will face a life unable to unlock the many doors of learning, opportunities and possibilities.
That joy does not begin in the classroom with phonetics and ABCs.
That joy is not the preserve of any one language.
That joy is in the heart of stories in all our official languages, in ancient stories, modern stories and “stories from the head” (which are just waiting to be told) .
There are stories of our past and our present, stories that help us navigate the vicissitudes of our world and help us make meaning out of the chaos of existence. Stories are as essential to our humanity as the air we breathe.
Without our stories we are mere ciphers in a Stats SA report. Stories fill the huge space between our birth and death records with the richness of our lives.
Stories are the flesh, blood and bones of who we are, the love affairs that create us, the jealousy that tears us apart, the envy, the rivalry, the poise, the drama, the beauty, the rich complexity of our humanity.
Without stories told by us to our children, we are what others want us to be, not what we make of ourselves. Stories are our freedom.
Tomorrow The Herald, along with our sister newspapers, the Times and the Daily Dispatch, are launching Nal’ibali, isiXhosa for “here is the story”, a national reading-for-enjoyment initiative to get adults and children in South Africa passionate about telling and reading stories. With the support of the DG Murray Trust, The Herald will be distributing 2500 newspapers featuring stories in English and isiXhosa to primary schools so that children whose parents cannot afford to buy the newspaper will have access to reading material from school.
Collectively our three newspapers will be publishing more than six million reading supplements.This is the start of a new journey of discovery.
I ask you, our loyal and regular readers, to join us on this journey and help engender the love of reading in our city and province so that more children and adults can delight in the joy of words, have their minds opened to new vistas of experience and be freed from the shackles of illiteracy and a-literacy that prevents us from becoming the best we can be.