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REWRITING NURSERY RHYMES TO ERADICATE GENDER VIOLENCE

By Sindiwe Magona

 

Babies come into the world ready to learn what it means to be human, and it is the responsibility of the grownups into whose laps they fall, to teach them, just as their caregivers taught them when they first arrived on earth.

All we know and all we will ever know, is what we have learned. Therefore, while we all lament the sad fact that South Africa is, if not the leader, then amongst the leading countries for gender-based violence (GBV), there is an attendant truth we may overlook: we have the criminals we deserve. 

Babies came into the world with no knowledge of violence – no child is born with violence or any other attitude – children become what society teaches them, whether such teaching is intentional or accidental.

From the start, children learn language from their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and the profuse word-world around them. And, because of their songlike characteristics (they are repetitive, rhythmic, and musical), nursery rhymes are universal and often where language learning begins. 

Little ones thrill at this taste of language. Both their vocabularies and understanding of the world expand. We call this language acquisition and the gurgles, smiles, wide eyes; jiggling little legs and fists attest to its interactive and emotional components. 

UNomathemba is a popular nursery rhyme in isiXhosa. Although its structure is in the form of a dialogue, a lot of its real meaning is unstated in its call and response format. It is its underlying nature that is truly alarming for it spells acceptance of the normative behaviours that uphold GBV in our country. isiXhosa is spoken as a first language by approximately 8.2 million people in South Africa and by another 11 million as a second language. 

If we are not careful as to what we teach our children, we might unwittingly be instilling violent behaviours in millions of babies and young children:

Unomathemba
Wena Nomathemba, ubethwe ngubani?
Yila ndoda!
Iphi ngoku?

Nants’ esapha!
Khawuyibiz’ izapha.
Owu, Hayi ndiyonqena
Khwel’ihashe
Owu, hayi ndiyonqena
Khwel’idonki
Owu hayi ndiyonqena
As’ke ehla amathmb’ ukubhek’ ezantsi, as’ke ehla amathamb’ ukubhek’ ezantsi.
 

Nomathemba
Nomathemba, who hit you?
That man!
Where is he now?
Over there!
Call him over here!
No, I’m too lazy to do do that!
Take the horse!
No, I’m too lazy to do do that!
Take the donkey!
No, I’m too lazy to do do that!
Then I give up.

Superficially in isiXhosa, the nursery rhyme is quite delightful. It has an engaging call and answer format, lots of action, an identifiable beginning, middle and end, and it is a real story!

However, it is fraught with outmoded, outdated, seductive notions: power relations between men and women and lack of agency in women. These are ideals and habits which cannot but lead to gender-based violence, unequal opportunities for women, the sexual exploitation of women and more. 

With time, beliefs and attitudes can change. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ is no more. ‘A wife not beaten is unloved’ no longer convinces anyone of the rightness of such acts. 

But, rhymes such as uNomathemba have not been revised to comply with these changed attitudes. Children and for that matter, grownups too, often unintentionally pick up ‘truths’ unconsciously. Society must take great care when deciding what to expose its children to. 

While robust and lively rhythms and accompanying actions may enthrall the children – illegal, and noxious rhymes like UNomathemba must be revisited and reissued with either explanation of its history, or with a modernized version. Then society would stand a chance of raising children with healthier attitudes. Below is my retelling of UNomathemba.

UNomathemba 
Retold by Sindiwe Magona

Wena, Nomathemba
Ubethwe ngubani?
Yilaa ndoda!
Iphi ngoku?
Nantsi ixoxa
Ixoxa ntoni?
Ixoxa ityala!
Layithini ityala?
Layilahla ityala
Ifunde isifundo
Ifunde isifundo
Umfaz’ akayongqongqo!
Umfaz’ akayongqongqo!

 

Nomathemba
Retold by Sindiwe Magona

Hi, Nomathemba
Who beat you?
That man!
Where is he now?
There he is, defending himself in court.
In court for what?
An abuse case!
How did the case go for him?
He lost the case
He learned a lesson
Learned a lesson
A wife is no bongo drum!
A wife is no bongo drum!

 

 

 

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