Like most children in the KwaZulu part of KwaZulu-Natal those days, I started school when my right hand could reach over my head and touch my left ear – which only became a possibility the year I turned six.
The greater part of my first year at school was dedicated to learning how to write letters of the alphabet on delicate slates with wooden frames.
The second year saw me starting to learn English amid warnings from older aunts and uncles that I needed to make sure I “caught it” early.
You see, I grew up at my grandmother’s house, where my mom, the eldest of nine children, had siblings strewn right across the various stages of the schooling system.
My youngest uncle is only two years older than me. Standard 3, the grade at which English became the sole medium of instruction, was apparently very hard – the number of people repeating that standard was testament to this fact.
I am certain I was not the greatest of students by the time I got to Standard 3 – the best pupils got top marks and their names were called out first in assembly when academic rankings were announced following the June and December examinations.
However, there was one thing I became very good at: stealing away with books.
At the beginning of term my aunts and uncles, some of whom by then were studying literature at high school, would have a few Zulu books lying around (the only type I could read confidently at age 10). I would take these and read about how Shaka united the Zulu nation by clobbering the Ndwandwe, and how Jeqe escaped being buried alive with him (as required by custom) following Shaka’s assassination.
I also recall, while visiting one of my aunts, how – between ages 12 and 14 – I buried myself in Inkinsela yaseMgungundlovu; Ubudoda Abukhulelwa; UMamisa, iQhawe leSwazi; Unyambose noZinitha; Nje Nempela, and Noma Nini.
These are stories I read over and over again.
Through them I learned that perseverance, even in the face of great adversity, pays off.
I also discovered that hard work is rewarded; loyal friendships are priceless; and that even I could aspire to be a great person one day.
Yes, there were English books floating around in those days as well – various Shakespeares and Thomas Hardys.
But my childhood was primarily marked by stories I could identify with, stories that affirmed me within my context, stories I could read and reread in a language in which I was already fluent.
- Mbuyazi is the founder of Mbuyazi Publishing, which seeks to bring the revolution of the printed word to the African tongue. He is also the author of a number of books, including AmaYIPHENDLEYA – IsiQalo Sakho Konke: Science and Technology in isiZulu and The WIBY Kids – How It All Began, a South African science and technology story aimed at teenagers and anyone else looking for a fresh perspective on the subject matter
- The WIBY Kids: How it all Began by Phiwayinkosi G Mbuyazi
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