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Why we cannot overlook children's right to stories and books

David Harrison is the CEO of the DG Murray Trust, core funder of the Nal’ibali campaign, and shares his opinion on why access to books and stories is every child's right. This article originally appeared in the Cape Argus, 23 April 2014.

Every Tuesday, an enterprising church minister from Rondebosch packs a box of theatre props and heads out to a nutrition rehabilitation centre in Crossroads on the Cape Flats. There, he tells stories and reads books to young children for whom the squatter camp is both home and the full extent of their worlds. As he arrives, they gather excitedly around his car, eager to help carry in the toys and finger puppets that make the stories come alive.

You can make the cutest finger puppets out of alpaca wool. For those who don’t know, an alpaca is a bit like a stunted camel, only it comes from the Andes, spits less and is not as grumpy. It has a remarkable way of connecting with children and is thus often found in petting zoos. Part of its appeal is its soft wool and endearing face, which is why alpacas often constitute both the substance and character of those slightly gormless finger puppets. As the minister speaks, the puppets change, Hobbes-like, into real animals. The children respond with consternation and hilarity as exaggerated calamities befall the creatures. They feel with the animals and experience relief and joy as their lives take a turn for the better. The story-telling is a physical sensation that lifts them out of the corrugated iron shacks they call home. Through touch and sound and sight, they encounter worlds they’ve never known before.

The most evocative sensation is probably smell, and the ‘animals’ smell of export-quality detergents and disinfectants. When these children grow up and buy a stuffed toy for their offspring, it should bring back joyful memories and hopefully cue them to tell their own stories with relish. Sure, there’s something faux about an Omo-scented finger puppet, but you can’t bring a real alpaca to Crossroads – or can you?

It just so happened that this church minister married a young couple from Germany. To the chagrin of the bridegroom, the bride opted to spend their honeymoon mucking out the stables on an alpaca farm in Stellenbosch – which is how an alpaca arrived in Crossroads on the back seat of a Volkswagen Polo. Once the children had overcome their initial fear, the agreeable alpaca became part of the story of their lives.

A story is an experience that enriches our life. A good story stimulates almost every part of the body – triggering memories, stimulating the senses, evoking emotion and movement, building imagination and language. Therein is its power to develop children. It integrates parts of the brain that need to connect to each other in order to think and to learn. Even before children have the right to schooling, they should have the right to stories and books. But most children in South Africa don’t.

Nal’ibali aims to promote reading for joy. It is a national campaign that tries to involve ordinary South Africans in the lives of children through reading and story-telling. On World Book Day, the 23rd of April, Nal’ibali launched a Children’s Literacy Charter. Some of it is about what government should provide, but most of it is what you and I can do to enrich the experience of reading for children. It’s simple, yet profound stuff:  All children should have the experience of exploring reading and writing purely for their own pleasure and satisfaction in their home language from early childhood onwards.  They need to be easily able to find a variety of reading and writing materials in their immediate environment.  Adults need to model reading and writing for them.  And stories should be animated by both imagination and reality. There’s more, but you get the picture.

There was once a baby alpaca that lived on a dusty and dangerous plain. Its mother had gone to look for food, and while she was away, the little alpaca was scared and alone. Her mom had told her not to go outdoors because she had once been hurt by an angry alpaca male who lived next door. The little alpaca couldn’t remember much of what had happened to her, except that he’d smelt of sweat and paraffin.  But it was dark and hot inside their shelter, which also smelt badly of the cooking fuel. So, one day, she ventured out and walked straight into that angry man-alpaca. Fortunately, another alpaca was there and gently led her by the hoof to a place where lots of other little alpacas were playing. There she felt safe and happy, and stayed until her mother fetched her at the end of the day. As she left, the church minister gave her a small bundle of alpaca wool to take home. That night, Zinhle – for that was her name – felt safe with her mother as she held and sniffed the wool, which blocked out the smell of the paraffin.

 

All children deserve the opportunity to learn to use reading, writing and stories meaningfully in their lives – to become literate! Join Nal’ibali in celebrating the different types of literacy experiences all our children should have with the launch of its special multilingual Children’s Literacy Charter. Download a copy in any or all of the 11 official languages.

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