In the small Northern Cape town of Kuruman, my beloved mother, who had a Grade 6 education and spoke very little English, was a master storyteller and told Setswana oral narratives – ditlhamane – to her six children every night without fail.
Growing up in townships and rural towns in the 1980s and early 1990s, with the inherent lack of resources and political instability, my family was like many others in improvising a lot to entertain ourselves. While my mother was a skilled narrator, my aunt was a gifted actress and she would act out her stories when it was her turn to tell a story. All this was done in my mother tongue, Setswana, and I have been hooked on stories ever since. We may have lacked physical books, but these oral stories were good enough to make me understand the power stories hold for a curious child.
Whenever authors are commissioned to write stories in South Africa, the default language of writing is English before being translated into an African language. That was my first thought when I was commissioned to write the official story for Nal’ibali’s 2020 World Read Aloud Day celebration.
My brain went into overdrive trying to come up with a story that would not only be interesting, but also affirm the African child from beginning to end. Only a week before I was due to send the story in did a light bulb flash in my mind. The story came to me as soon as I decided I would write it in Setswana and translate it into English. How I underestimated the power of my own language!
Among the benefits of reading aloud to your children are that it gives you things to talk about and builds a bond between parent/caregiver and child. What better way to build a bond and have things to talk about than to do this in the language that you express yourself best in?
Since 2013, Nal’ibali has been bringing children and their caregivers a special story to celebrate World Read Aloud Day. Last year’s story was read to 1 559 730 children on a single day. We live in a multicultural, multilingual country with English constituting only 8.3% of home language speakers, Afrikaans 12.1% and Setswana 8.8%, according to Stats SA’s Community Survey in 2016. At 24.6%, isiZulu is the most common home language. This means that more than 80% of the South African population’s home language is neither English nor Afrikaans – languages in which the majority of literature is published, including for children.
Nal’ibali vigorously promotes and advocates for children and their caregivers to enjoy stories in their home languages. My story, A Day to Remember – featuring Nal’ibali’s much loved characters Neo, Josh, Hope, Bella, Noodle and Bella’s mom – has been translated into nine South African languages. It’s a fun story of friendship, exploration and community service.
As our beloved Nelson Mandela rightly said, if you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart. This year, World Read Aloud Day is celebrated on February 5. Join me in reading this story to children across South Africa. I urge you to pledge and/or make time to read the story aloud in your children’s home language. May we all get into the hearts of children this World Read Aloud Day and be part of the excitement!
Lorato Trok is an early literacy consultant and expert in developing reading-for-pleasure books for young children, especially in African languages. She has 20 years’ experience in publishing, writing and story development in children’s literature.