Two musicians, a television presenter, a retail entrepreneur, and myself – an anthropologist – are re all seated around a table discussing the current state of South African youth.

One of the musicians is a multilingual rapper, actress, and currently producing a documentary on a cultural item of significance. The second musician has created a refreshing blend of hip-hop with a youthful twist on the Maskandi genre. The television presenter is regarded by many as a fashion icon and has established a television production house creating opportunities for young people in the industry. The retail entrepreneur has an ethos of collaboration that involves hosting fun and engaging multidisciplinary events to showcase the works of Johannesburg’s young artists. Lastly, I am a scholar, children’s author, poet and an absolute lover of storytelling.

What struck me during our conversation is that we all care deeply about our history, our heritage, our future and the present human condition in the world. Whether it is writing captivating lyrics or poetry; conducting research for an academic paper, documentary or script; going over business contracts or finding ways to articulate ourselves on our social media platforms – our worlds revolve around reading, storytelling and critical thinking in the pursuit of becoming better versions of ourselves. We use words and our work to navigate what it means to be young, African and how to leave our society a better one than we found it.

In the quest to encourage more South African youth to read and to become involved in promoting a culture of reading, I believe it is important to illuminate the ways that literacy contributes to the life journeys of people across different vocations. It is also important to meet people where they are.

For instance, earlier, before our conversation, another person complimented the tattoo on my leg, a large stack of books, and asked what inspired it. “Oh, I just really love reading,” I said, “Books make me happy.”

“Wow, books,” he responded. “I can’t even tell you the last time I read even a book. It must have been in high school or something,” he ended with a shrug.

I sometimes wonder if our lack of reading has something to do with the way in which our school system failed to make reading enjoyable at a young age. I truly believe that if the South African school curriculum was better designed to inspire and connect to the collective soul of contemporary South African children, instead of having it forced (along with the other parts of the curriculum that are oddly archaic and somewhat irrelevant) upon them for the purposes of grades and matriculation, young people might develop better relationships with books and reading.

We need to meet people where they are. We all have dreams and ambitions of becoming larger than life versions of ourselves. Therefore, we have to find a way to emphasise that reading is important, not only to people who one day want to be in literacy-related fields like myself, but to everyone who wants to excel, regardless of their path. The great thing about the Internet and social media is that young people especially are constantly engaged in challenging conversations about the state of our society. Regardless of whether some people choose wilful ignorance, the World Wide Web is always there as a source of information, should they desire to seek it out.

Words and language are basic tools of communication for our shared humanity, and it is essential that we get rid of the idea that reading is only something we do in school.  Reading can be enjoyable; and written words will unlock a world of possibilities, if allowed. And possibilities can be abundant! The people I introduced in the beginning of this article are reflections of the possibilities of life trajectories available to South African youth, regardless of formal schooling. While not necessarily only book-related; reading has helped them to apply their minds and produce knowledge through their individual expressions – contributing to how they have become the notable people they are today.

We are all custodians of the great African story, in all its richness and complexity, and we all have a contribution to make in advancing our continent in a world that is rapidly globalising. We have to meet young people where they are and invest in their futures by making reading accessible, relevant and essential to their life paths.

This Youth Month, Nal’ibali, the national reading-for-enjoyment campaign, is calling all South African youth – and anyone else with an interest in promoting literacy in their communities – to become a reading role model by signing up to its volunteer network, FUNda Leader. The platform provides specialised literacy training; access to multilingual stories, invitations to participate in events and activities, as well as on-going support and motivation to help meet young children where they are, dream about, and create better futures for themselves thought books and stories.

Lebohang Masango is a masters candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Witwatersrand. She is also children’s book author of Mpumi’s Magic Beads, a poet, freelance writer and feminist activist.

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