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“Having access to books in one’s mother-tongue and English can enable children to be powerful learners” – a Q&A with performer and education activist Cindy Mkaza

Published in the Sunday World, Daily Dispatch, and Herald

By Carla Lever

Cindy Mkaza

You turned a career in the performing arts – particularly in theatrical storytelling for children – into one as an education activist. What sparked this change?

In 2013 my mother sent me my sister’s not so good school report card. I was so worried about her future that I had to do something. As you know, in South Africa it is hard to make a decent living if you do not have a matric, especially for young people coming from low-income homes. My husband and I started the programme informally in 2014 after I struggled to find a tutoring organisation closer to Site B that could accommodate my sister.

Do you see similarities between the two careers in terms of crafting content that’s engaging and stimulating for young people?

Yes, I do! In fact, we make sure to take the learners to the theatre once a term to stimulate critical thinking through discussions and reflection essays. We also make the lessons into games. We once invited poets to come and teach English grammar – the students never forgot their parts of speech after that! So you can see I never did completely change careers. As part of academic support, we invite young black professionals to come and share their stories of success. It’s powerful when students see and hear someone with a similar background to them end their story with: “in the end, despite my circumstances I made it.” These stories make them see success is possible for them too.

Tell us a little about your operations.

We hold classes in Khayelitsha, Cape Town. We have two branches: one is in Site B at the local library. The second one is in Site C at Intlanganiso Secondary School. We’re currently supporting 100 learners between grades 8 – 12. The students self-select to be in the programme. We always put a call for applications towards the end of the year.

Do you find learners struggle to have appropriate resources in the form of textbooks and other kinds of books at libraries?

Having access to books in one’s mother-tongue and English can enable children to be powerful learners, but at too many schools learners have the wrong textbooks, or are not allowed to take their textbook home and have to share with their classmates. To assist the learners with extra resources we give the learners hand-outs and we photocopy past question papers for the grade 12 learners to practice at home.

We’re pretty interested in programme that get children reading – it seems to be the key to every kind of subject success. How are you able to encourage reading and writing support with the learners?

In the English sessions that we run with the learners we are always making them write reflection essays – these are often linked to theatre outings. We refer to these outings as the Culture Club. We’re planning to launch a Book Club soon where they will share books and write their own stories.

Education changes lives. What kind of growth and results have you seen?

Witnessing learners work hard towards their school work so that they can be bread-winners at home is an emotional journey. When we started the programme we met a learner who had failed grade 8 three times – his mother said we were his last resort. His English level was at a grade 4 level. To help him to improve we put him in touch with some of our friends that run a Teaching English for Foreign Learners school. He went there most days after school. That experience gave him so much confidence and helped him improve his results. He managed to pass grade 8 and 9 with improvements of up to 30% in Mathematics and English.

How have you managed to get this incredibly important project the ground? What would help you to do more?

The project is personal to me. I grew up in Khayelitsha and understand the dynamics of the environment – how it can be toxic and suffocating to people who want to succeed. We currently have a deficit in our outings budget and would really like donations towards it. We see these excursions as just as important as the academic support because some of the learners have never been outside of Khayelitsha. They live in a beautiful city which they don’t get to experience. How can you imagine more than your sum total of life experience? In the near future we would love to branch out to the Eastern Cape. To do this we will need partnerships. We would welcome anyone that is keen to see young people succeed in South Africa to get in touch.

From Sunday April 15, Nal’ibali will be publishing its supplements in two new languages. An English-Setswana edition will be published in the Sunday World in the North West, and an English-Xitsonga edition will be donated to reading clubs in Limpopo. Clubs in both provinces will collect their copies from select post offices. The post offices (10 in each province) will also have 50 additional editions each to give away to member of the public.


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