By Aimee-Claire Smith
The Uber picks us up outside the FunDza offices in Muizenberg. My co-worker, Zimkhitha, and I climb into the back seat and begin the half-hour drive to Masiphumelele, a small township somewhere near Fish Hoek. We don’t talk much, preferring to appreciate the passing mountains and sky full of clouds, a well-needed deviation from the usual Monday-afternoon “scenery” of a computer screen.
It’s National Library Week in South Africa, and we’ve been asked to represent FunDza in a talk at Masiphumelele Public Library, incorporating the theme of ‘My Library, Your Library’ with the values and ideas of FunDza and what we do. I’m excited and nervous. I’ve been interning at FunDza for just under two months, and in that time I’ve been working mostly on editing the FunDza Fanz submissions. I love the editing, and feel unbelievably privileged to be involved in nurturing young South African writers, but I’m looking forward to this chance to experience going ‘into the field’.
The first thing that I notice about the library is the brightly-painted walls with murals that proclaim the importance of a love for learning. The words resonate with me, but more than that, the colour gives the library a cheerful atmosphere. Inside, the staff is friendly and delighted to welcome us. We’re served sweet orange juice and biscuits, that give me nostalgic memories of my primary-school days.
We’re here early, and we take the opportunity to scan the library shelves. I’m impressed by the variety of books that they have, noticing several names of authors I myself enjoy reading, or enjoyed growing up. There’s a whole shelf dedicated to FunDza’s Harmony High series and #LoveReading publication. The books calm me down, put me at ease. Books are what I know, what I love. I will enjoy sharing this love with my audience today.
We do our talk in a small hall separate from the main library building. Our audience, about fifteen to twenty high school learners, congregate at tables in groups of four or five. Eleventh and twelfth graders, most of them are not much younger than me.
I stand at the front of the room and look at them, this quiet band of teenagers. None of them need to be here – the talk is non-compulsory. They could be at home, or sleeping, or out with friends… but they are here. That, in itself, speaks volumes. I am struck by the fact that each and every one of them has an individual life with struggles and joys, each and every one of them has hopes and dreams for their future (though they may not realise them yet), each and every one of them has a unique way of seeing and experiencing this world.
After we’ve been introduced, I kick off our talk. I’m sitting on a table at the front of the room, barefoot, swinging my legs. I’d scripted my talk, having always been someone who thinks better on paper than with my mouth, but my script lies unopened on the table beside me. I speak from memory, from my heart, from something deep inside of me, waving my hands, letting my voice rise and fall naturally. I tell about how books and stories brought light to my otherwise troubled childhood, and about how they gave and still give me hope and inspiration for navigating my way through this life.
When I finish, Zimkhitha tells her story – about a lonely childhood, and how she turned to books for companionship and entertainment. Though she and I lived different childhoods, in different times and different cities, both of us found something magical in books, and we’re telling our stories today in the hopes that they’ll inspire our audience to turn to books for some of that special magic of their own.
In the silence after her story, Zimkhitha asks, “Who here is a reader?”. The teenagers avert their eyes, scuffle their feet. A teacher near the back of the room raises her hand. Nobody joins her. Zimkhitha in undeterred. : “I am going to turn you all into readers,” she declares with confidence. Her next question – “Why don’t you read?” – prompts a few answers out of our audience. The books are too long. They don’t have time to read. And, most critically, they can’t relate to the characters and stories in most books.
We are not surprised by their answers. These are the most common problems the South African youth of today face when it comes to reading for enjoyment, and they’re exactly what FunDza is all about solving. We exist to give these teenagers – and thousands like them across the country and beyond – access to stories that are fun to read, easy to read, and, most importantly, about things, people, and events they can relate to and care about.
I watch them. They are uncertain, unsure, self-conscious, but as Zimkhitha talks, making these crazy promises about how much they’re going to grow to love reading, I see a light begins to burn in their eyes, of excitement and hunger for what she is offering them. Perhaps, they themselves are not even yet consciously aware of this hunger. It will take work, yes, but each and every one of them will, with time, become a reader, and they will be proud of it. And perhaps one day, they themselves will be inspired to take pen to paper and tell their own stories. I cannot wait to receive their submissions.