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My Lost Inheritance: The Stories My Grandmother Never Told

Bontle Senne considers the immeasurable value of South African stories for South African children, and shares some upcoming projects that aim to reinvigorate African oral storytelling for the next generation.

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I wish my grandmother had told me stories.

I was often left in the care of my paternal grandmother while both my parents worked full-time jobs. A former domestic worker, she was the kind of granny you see in movies and read about in books, down to her incredible homemade ginger biscuits. As a child, I was obsessed with reading. My parents did not buy me many books but I devoured the fiction section of my primary school library. After I had tired of Babysitters’ Club, Choose Your Own Adventure and Goosebumps, I made my way through Dickens, Austen and other authors who I’m not sure I would have the time or inclination to read now as an adult.

A book was a preferable companion to me than any person or pet but I don’t remember ever reading a South African book outside of school setworks. And even then, our exposure to South African English fiction was limited Maru by Bessie Head who, though born in South Africa, perhaps belongs more fairly to Botswana. My school offered only Afrikaans as an additional language and we read many interesting, complex works in the language. While I enjoyed many of these books immensely, I could not do so without a bit of black middle-class guilt. My father had been among the children who risked their lives in the Soweto Uprising of 1976 protesting against Afrikaans as a language of instruction in their schools and there I was, some 25 years later, happily tucking into Skilpoppe and Vlerkdans. South Africa can be a weird place sometimes.

Had I had the option of taking another indigenous language as a subject, I would certainly have taken it. Had I had any South African or Africa children’s books in my school library, I am sure I read them as enthusiastically as I read Roald Dahl or Jacqueline Wilson. And had my grandmother or mother told me the stories of her grandmother or mother, I think I would have had an even richer relationship with the written word.

The invalidation of oral African storytelling

I understand now why they did not. My work at the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation exposed me to many realities that had never occurred to me as a child. One such reality was that the reason my grandmother did not tell me stories was likely because of the systematic invalidation of African oral storytelling during apartheid and after it.

As my former colleague and current chairperson of the Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, Elinor Sisulu, put it:

“The denial of our own stories was perfectly logical in the education system of a racist settler society but I find it difficult to understand why we remain in the same grey area of confusion in post-colonial societies.

Throughout Southern Africa there is little conscious investment in ensuring that African folklore and traditions are reflected in the literature that our children consume in classrooms.” (Quoted from an article that originally appeared in The Times, 22 January 2013, as part of the of the Nal’ibali ‘Here’s the Story’ series of columns)

The education system that I am a product of did not believe that oral storytelling had a place in our curriculum or as a tool to unlock a love of the written word. My grandmother did not believe that she would add value to my education or literacy with her stories and so she did not tell me any. She encouraged me to read everything I could get my hands on but was never concerned about the Eurocentric nature of everything I had access to. And so, with her passing, I lost the stories that my granny had grown up listening to and loving. I will never be able to tell my future children her stories and history of the Senne family. That link to my heritage and my identity is forever severed.

Bringing our stories back

Today, there is a growing recognition of the role that oral storytelling plays in literacy and the acquisition of complex concepts in home and additional languages. In South Africa, PRAESA and Nal’ibali have done much to stimulate more appreciation for the value of our indigenous stories, sharing their multilingual stories online as well as tips for parents trying to share their own.

Early next year, Puku will host its third annual isiXhosa Children’s Story Festival organised in association with the National Arts Festival and Rhodes University and sponsored by Redisa. SAIDE’s African Storybook Project is working with teachers and parents in South Africa, Lesotho, Kenya and Uganda to turn oral stories into digital ones in print or video format. I could list a half a dozen other organisations involved in similar work across the continent but the real tipping point will be in the home. When someone else’s grandmother starts to believe that her stories are valid and in telling them, she is changing the educational outcomes of her grandchildren forever, that will be the signal that we are really making progress on reviving oral storytelling for both urban and rural African children. Until then, I’ve already made it very clear to my future children’s grandmothers that they should start collecting their stories now because there is no way my children will lose the stories of their grandmothers the way I lost the stories of mine.

Bontle Senne is a Golden Baobab Media Fellow who produces articles on behalf of the organisation to promote and highlight the African children literary scene and Golden Baobab’s work. Golden Baobab is an organisation with a dream of seeing a world filled with wonder and possibility one children book at a time. Bontle is a blogger, web editor, speaker and literary activist on the board of NPO Puku Children’s Literature Foundation and NPO READ Educational Trust. She writes stories for FunDza Literary Trust and regularly speaks on social media and children’s literature at international literary festivals and conferences.

Image courtesy of Golden Baobab

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