I was raised in a home where reading is as important as brushing my teeth, a daily ritual. I always lived in areas where the library was in walking distance. Even if I was punished and not allowed to go play outside, I was allowed to visit the library. Newspapers were also accessible and my father would give me “The Chiel” column from the Daily Dispatch to read where there were jokes, quotes and language anecdotes to begin with, thereafter I graduated to reading real articles and we would share the paper. We also didn’t have a tv for many years so that meant radio and books became a huge part of my life. I was also lucky enough to go to a school with a flourishing library where going to the library and getting out 3 books every week was as important as play during breaktime. The librarians at the public libraries began to notice if I didn’t pay a visit on a particular weekend. I had my first library card when I was 6 years old. When my sister and I were in primary school we thought we were so cool because we used my eldest sister’s card from the adult section of the library to allow us to take out more books during the holidays and we compared who could choose the best books. I think my sister was better as she discovered Judy Blume’s Superfudge, Fudgamania and all the books related to Fudge and Peter’s altercations! Obviously she was Peter and I was Fudge. My favourite books were the ones with pop up images where doors would open on the page and everything came alive every time I would turn the page. These books were more exciting especially when I read about Alice in Wonderland. Another favourite of mine was a book that profiled children’s lives all over the world, their school and family life. They were about my age at the time and I was convinced they were my friends, I felt I knew them intimately because the book allowed me into their world and into an understanding that there was more going on in the world with people living in Russia and China.
My family would laugh about my obsessive nature with books: why was a I engrossed in Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree? What could I possibly learn from a tree and a moon that talks? I wasn’t sure what I was learning either because many of the books from my childhood didn’t even consider the reality that African children lived with but this did not stop me from devouring anything that could spark my imagination. By the time we were in high school, my sister and I would exchange books, if she read an interesting book she would recommend it to me and vice versa. However I used to judge her, she really enjoyed Mills and Boon at some stage. Between the two of us Mama was convinced we had read the entire library!
In high school we were upgraded from the children’s public library to the adult library. A whole new world of political writing emerged where Athi and I learned about the Mau Mau revolutions, female genital mutilation, slavery, emotional intelligence, menopause and apartheid from other people’s eyes. Novels became tedious at some stage and we explorde poetry and African writers, many of which were never spoken about in our classrooms.
Coming to university meant more books and reading. I couldn’t believe my luck when all the courses I chose required me to read and write. My friends in commerce, science and engineering would complain about practicals and tests and I would boast about how all I have to do is read and write, something that had become like breathing for me at this stage. Even though the reading and writing was of a different standard I was confident that I wasn’t starting on a clean slate, I had 12 years experience so when English 2 became a chore, I was able to persevere and get better and when I discovered books in isiXhosa I was able to decode and make meaning of the language I had hardly seen in print in my childhood.
Looking back at this short history with my life and books while being immersed in schools where a classroom library is not in use makes me realise how rich I am. The knowledge and the language I have with me has allowed me into new ways of thinking and seeing the world and I wonder about the many children who do not have the opportunity to experience literacy for pleasure; where it is purely functional and failure to master it will result in a beating in front of the whole classroom. I wonder about children in rural areas who do not have mobile libraries and not even a textbook to take home from school. I wonder about their inner world and whether they have enough words to express themselves and explore themselves. I guess they can express themselves and do grow into themselves but there’s something about reading Sojourner Truth’s Ain’t I a woman? that makes me wonder if it would have been easy for me to see myself the way I see myself in the world.