I didn’t read children’s books as a child. I didn’t have access to them. But I loved the story of Mmatladi le Dingwe, a story that was included in Primary School learner’s book. Then there was the story of Worsie (in my Afrikaans learner’s book), which my siblings and I found extremely funny. Even today, we still make reference to the character of Worsie when we talk about someone running from problems.
I tried to find the story Mmatladi le Dingwe online to no avail. I'd never heard of it before Damaria's reference to it. I suspect that perhaps were my grandmother still alive, she might have been able to tell it to me. Why does it seem that grandmothers are the only ones who still tell the old stories?
Our oral heritage seems to have all but lost its place in our education system, especially for children below the school-going age. As a child, I had books but all of them were in English. The grown-ups (probably rightly in SA circa 1990) thought it was a better idea for me to build competency in English than to even attempt to acquire stories or concepts in my home language. I was lucky: I took to English quickly, discovered I actually had a talent for the language and read everything I could get my hands on. Most other kids aren't so lucky.
With no access to home language children’s books outside of those ordered by schools and parents who are often not equipped to help with their children’s literacy and learning, we should never have abandoned oral storytelling as a vehicle to impart knowledge and linguistic skills. We should never have pushed the angle that you have to read to your children and that that is the only way to contribute to their improved literacy. What if you can't afford books? What if you can't read? Why can't you tell them the stories of your childhood and your parents' childhood? Loss of this practise (or rather, institutional praise and support of this practise) has disadvantaged many local children in their acquisition of of complex concepts in their home language and fundamentals of their first additional language. True story.
Neither traditional nor self-published non-English, non-Afrikaans books are getting to kids. A writer's home language is X but publishers don't think there's a market for X books and booksellers don't think X books sell so they don't get adequately published or distributed. The writer realises this and does not attempt to write in X because if you can't find a publisher or a bookseller to stock it, there's not much of a point is there? Self-publishing still carries a stigma and, sorry, but Exclusive Books probably isn't going to be putting that kind of book on their shelves anytime soon either. And then people complain that there aren't any books in X available and how will we keep X alive for their children - while simultaneously not buying and promoting the books that do get published by the likes of Jacana Media, online or through NGOs like Biblionef.
This is an oversimplification. There are good reasons for the actions of all the players in this situation to act as they do. And many of these factors limit the number of English and Afrikaans books available to English and Afrikaans kids too. Don't get me wrong, I empathise. I just long for a different way.
I think a return to orality is that different way. I think we need to work out how to mainstream the production and distribution of oral storytelling in our languages. I think we need to figure out how to monetize it - whether through public-private partnerships or development of Freemium platforms, whatever. Because if people can't make a living from it, how can we expect them to give up pension and medical aid for the uncertainty of vaguely doing good things? It's not fair. They should be rewarded for doing work that is worthwhile (and that goes for authors, illustrators and editors too).
It's easy for me to complain from my little corner of the interwebs. Doing something concrete about it is something entirely different. Which means the only thing we really need to do is figure out how.
Read the full interview with Damaria Senne