Tribute to Eusebuis McKaiser

‘One of the deepest joys of being human is reading. That is why it is crucial that the right to education be enjoyed by every single person. Nothing fuels inequality so viciously as unequal access to education including the injustice of not having an opportunity to learn to read AND to have access to affordable and good, relevant reading materials.’ – Eusebius McKaiser 

Broadcaster and author, Joanne Joseph speech at the memorial of her friend and colleague, the renowned late political analyst, broadcaster and author, Eusebius McKaiser, in recognition of the contribution he made to the book community.

When I was asked to speak about our shared love for books, what immediately came to mind were those many posts – Eusebius at his favourite haunts with a foamy cappuccino in hand, the sun streaming over the pages of a book he was poring over. Those posts became important to us. They were not merely an indulgent peek into Eusebius’s lifestyle. They were an invitation to explore his inner literary world, bursting with the ideas of writers whose words and thoughts he dived into, analysed, digested and critiqued.

For authors whose works were featured and often deeply appreciated in those posts, it was an opportunity at an unexpected, generous endorsement that you knew would drive readers to the bookstores and the libraries to read your works. So many of us are deeply grateful that our books were among those that made it into his hands because we knew he’d treated them with the same love and care with which we’d written them. At times, it pained him to write less complimentary reviews, because he was reluctant to be ungenerous towards other writers. But he was a firm believer that writers ought to be held to a high standard and the public deserved quality reading material.

His social media posts and podcasts were also a call for his followers to be deliberate about the act of reading. We were both equally surprised at how often we’d hear people say ‘I have no time to read’ when what they meant to say was that because time was short, they had simply not prioritised the activity of reading over other pursuits. Eusebius’s posts firstly spoke about the joy of reading, and the infinite pleasure that books gave him. But those posts were also a call to action, exhorting his social media followers to intentionally set time aside to read as a means to expand their world view. For him, learning did not end at university – reading was a consistent part of his daily regime – in the way he exercised his body, he constantly exercised his mind. He was trying to convey that not to read is a dangerous thing, especially in a country where people in positions of power regularly use words to mislead, to misrepresent, to confuse, to detract from the truth and more than ever, to sow hatred and division.

One of the most enjoyable projects I ever did with Eusebius was an online show called Cover to Cover which we co-presented between 2020 and 2021. Our main intention was to have fun with books and authors and just inculcate a culture of reading in the nation, that cohered with the hashtags he often used: #ForTheLoveofReading / ForTheLoveofBooks. Again, Eusebius was highly intentional about his approach to the show. As early as the second episode, we focused on children’s literature. I’ll never forget the pics of him, propped on a large cushion on the bookstore floor, having a heart-to-heart with young readers about the books they loved. For him, reading was the gateway for children to access the world of education, subsequently work, and then the quality of life they deserved in this place of inequality and poverty. It was the point at which his love for words and their tools as levers of social justice coalesced. He once wrote in one of his posts: ‘One of the deepest joys of being human is reading. That is why it is crucial that the right to education be enjoyed by every single person. Nothing fuels inequality so viciously as unequal access to education including the injustice of not having an opportunity to learn to read AND to have access to affordable and good, relevant reading materials.’

On Cover to Cover, he was similarly intentional about his guests. He began the show with three powerful black women writers telling stories of home. He was concerned that when one walked into a bookstore, it was first the international writers whose works you’d encounter while local writers would constantly play second fiddle. Eusebius wanted to change that mindset in the publishing and book retail industry. He longed for us as Africans to find our stories, to take pride in them, to write and read them so we could develop a greater sense of self and our history. He wanted us to break our prejudices by penetrating the lives of the marginalised through these encounters.

He was also a broad reader of multiple genres who could not be limited. On that show, he also interviewed African American young adult writers and the Irish winner of the Booker. He explored Afrikaaps poetry alongside local politics and playwrighting, producing a smorgasbord for the reader out there because he understood that the world is huge place that is home to a multitude of stories of humanity and we have a duty to bear witness to the stories of all communities around us, to their suffering and their triumphs as captured in the written word. This was the subject of many of our late-night conversations as mutual insomniacs: how in this short length of time we spend on this earth, we absorb all the storytelling we can from sources close to us and those whose lives we will never encounter personally except through a book. He loved the kaleidoscope of possibility that existed in that – that one could sit here, on the tail end of Africa and yet travel so far into the mysterious lives of others continents away, experience their geographies and relationships and dilemmas, and glean some sense of how all of humanity is connected, how our strivings and difficulties are essentially the same although they may take different forms. Though we had the same interests, we didn’t always read the same books. He would offer me a detailed synopsis of whatever race theory book he was reading at the time. I would give him a rundown of the latest historical fiction novel on my bedside table. So, we joked, our short voice notes first grew into podcasts, and later, into audiobooks.

I’m profoundly sorry that he never got to produce the next book he was thinking about. We are fortunate that, as an author, he produced three books on racism and politics that are still widely available, and his free form writing abounds everywhere on social media while his commentary continues to live on news sites and endures in the form of his podcasts. His words have guaranteed his immortality.   

Yet we grapple with the reality that one of our greatest book exponents has now left us, although his call to action remains. What does this mean to you? Does it mean you will leave this place today and pick up a book after a long time? Does it mean that for a time, you will put aside the escapist reading to pick up a different book – that ‘heavy’ literature that you’ve been avoiding, to find a window into the lives of people around you whose suffering has thus far been invisible to you, and that you will take a moment to acknowledge that? Does it mean you will read your child a bedtime story tonight, or support a literacy organisation that will grow the reading skills of other children, many of whom cannot read with understanding in our country? Does it mean that as an aspiring writer who has never thought your story worthy, you will finally put pen to paper today? Whatever it is, I ask us all here to do something substantial for the cause of literacy in memory of Eusebius.

Eusebius, go well. You accomplished so much in the short space of 44-years. We no longer have you. But we still have your words and we will still find the essence of you in them. Now rest in brilliance. We will always love you.

Stir the Dust

Memoirs of a Comrades Champion, Ludwick Mamabolo, by Professor Mpho Ngoepe

Against seemingly impossible odds, a determined young boy from a South African village rises from the dust to become one of the world’s greatest ultra-distance athletes. A win in the grueling Comrades Marathon requires this, and cannot be done, unless, in that moment the winning men’s athlete has become the greatest of all humans who runs. Stir the Dust, Memoirs of a Comrades champion reads like a fable. And yet, it is not one. 

Stir the Dust is the remarkable real-life story of the journey to immortality by Ludwick Modibe Mamabolo (Lodi). For all Comrades Champions, men and women are indeed immortal. Since the first running of this most glorious of human endeavors in 1921 hundreds-of-thousands have started and finished the Comrades Marathon, all of them winners. Many have tried to arrive as the first human to cross the finish line but only an elite group of 51 in the men’s category have done so. Of this elite group, only twelve are Black South Africans. Notwithstanding that black people (and women) were barred from competing until 1975, winning Comrades from the starting point of South Africa’s unequal history is an achievement almost beyond comprehension. That some have done so, and on more than one occasion in some cases, or have won multiple top ten-finisher gold medals at Comrades (as Lodi has done) are stories that must be made available to the world to be shared and known. Like all of us, these humans will pass. But we dare not let the tales of what was accomplished to pass too. 

    But Stir the Dust is not a book about politics or racial segregation. It is a book about transcending these invisible lanes, and traces the lines of how dreams and miracles always happen when South Africa and South Africans are inspired and come together. Indeed, in the year in which Lodi had his greatest triumph, it was necessary to win Comrades twice, first on race day, and then again, through an even more difficult terrain, following a protracted and hapless attempt to discredit an accomplishment which was fully earned and completely deserved. This confirmation of the first win in this Comrades year rose above all obstacles imposed by those who would try to discredit. It was in the spirit of our rainbow nation that people came together to ensure that the name Ludwick Mamabolo is correctly recorded in history.   

This then is an important story of what it takes to lead, as Lodi has done, on and off the road. There are other stories of many great South African distance runners which must also be told. Sadly, these stories have not been recorded into written words yet. Until they are an important history of a unique element of South Africa, in which we have run together, and in the same direction will forever be lost. 

Like me, other readers of Stir the Dust will recognize the importance of this story as a trailblazer in recording the remarkable journeys that Comrades dreamers have taken on the road to accomplishing the impossible. “Everything is impossible, until it is done” said our beloved Madiba. This book inspires us all, not only to do the impossible, but to record the stories of all of those who have done so. It was not surprising that the book sold over a 1000 copies in the first month of its publication.

*Book Review by Graham Moore (November 2020)

Enthusiastic Unisa academic races for indigenous languages

 

In an inspiring move to promote and preserve indigenous languages, Professor Mpho Ngoepe, Unisa’s School of Arts Director in the College of Human Sciences (CHS), dedicates his participation in the upcoming 2023 Comrades Marathon to raise awareness and funds for indigenous languages. The partnership between Unisa, Indigenous Languages Initiative for Advancement (ILIFA) and Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, aims to address the lack of access to books and to quality children’s literature in African languages.

According to recent reading comprehension results, a staggering 81% of South African Grade 4 learners struggle to read for meaning in any language, representing an increase from 78% in 2016. These figures emphasise the urgent need for investment in multilingual literacy. Surprisingly, only 2% of all books published in South Africa are in African languages, even though 80% of the population speak a home language other than English or Afrikaans, which dominate the publishing industry. Furthermore, a mere 8% of public schools in the country have a library, and many teachers lack the necessary skills to teach children how to read.

Reflecting on his passion for indigenous languages and heritage, Ngoepe shares, “Having written award-winning anthologies of Northern Sotho short stories, I realised that indigenous languages are often neglected. The limited exposure and usage of these languages in education, politics, health, economy, science and social contexts, mean that even native speakers struggle with reading and writing.” Ngoepe adds, “I believe that it is our collective responsibility to empower children to become proficient and proud speakers of indigenous languages.”

Ngoepe had previously participated in nine Comrades Marathons and expresses his determination to complete the race the tenth time to raise awareness for the development and preservation of indigenous languages. By producing high-quality books in these languages, he believes that South Africa can compete at a global level. With his goal of securing a green number at the marathon, an achievement awarded to participants who complete their tenth marathon, Ngoepe hopes to inspire others to embrace the significance of language and heritage.

On 11 June, Ngoepe and his fellow runners will embark on the arduous journey from Pietermaritzburg to Durban in the KwaZulu-Natal Province. Ngoepe urges the public to support his cause, whether by cheering from the side or contributing to the #RacingForOurLanguages campaign by calling the hotline on 079 267 7469 (available via voice call or WhatsApp during business hours) to make their pledge.

The Puku Children’s Literature Foundation, renowned for its award-winning contributions to children’s literature, has taken the lead in collecting donations through their website. They humbly request contributions of any amount to support this cause.

Let us come together and rally behind Unisa’s astonishing academic as he races for indigenous languages, taking a significant step towards creating a brighter future for South African children and their linguistic identities.

Click here to access Puku’s website and pledge your support.

#Unisa150

 

*By Tebogo Mahlaela, Communication and Marketing Specialist, College of Human Sciences

Webinars 2021: The Wonderful Wisdom of Our Words

by Nomvuyo Lerato Mzamane

Between April and June 2021, Puku hosted a series of curated conversations amongst writers, academics, publishers, activists, and institutions in the indigenous language ecosystem on the role of children’s literature in preserving and promoting our indigenous languages. These conversations took the form of nine webinars in isiXhosa, isiZulu, Setswana, Xitsonga, Sepedi, isiNdebele, Siswati, Sesotho, and Tshivenda. The isiXhosa webinar was organised in partnership with the University of the Western Cape. The remaining eight webinars were organised in partnership with PanSALB and ILIFA – the Pan South African Language Board and the Indigenous Language Initiative for Advancement, respectively. 

Significantly, this was the first time ever that a webinar series of this nature was conducted in our indigenous languages and there was consensus among webinar panellists and attendees that it should not be the last. Most welcomed by the experts and activists, was that they had never at this level, had discussions about their language, in their language, and for the benefit of the African child. 

Panellists represented academia, broadcasting / media, the performing arts including actors and poets, business, linguists, storytellers and writers of several genres including children’s literature, educators and independent publishers.

The webinars were each facilitated by a Moderator and hosted by a member of the Puku team who also delivered the Vote of Thanks. A Rapporteur was appointed to provide a report of the proceedings in both the language of the webinar, and to craft highlights in English. 

Whilst each webinar was unique in its own right, with noteworthy panellists and informed and informative discussions, recurring themes were identifiable. A comprehensive synthesis culled the webinar discussions and their accompanying reports into an analytical reflection, listing the major issues arising and highlighting key suggestions for the future.

All webinars were recorded and are available in their entirety of approximately two hours each, on the “PESP Webinar Project” playlist on the Puku Channel on YouTube.

The written reports of the webinars in each indigenous language are available on Puku’s website in the Blogs, Features, Opinions & Editorials section.


COMMON THREADS FROM THE WEBINARS

Early childhood is where to start. Across the heritage landscape.

  • Significant emphasis was placed on African languages development in both the first 1000 days of life (conception to age 2) and in early childhood 0 to 9 years of age (up to grade 3).  
  • The primacy of storytelling was particularly named with a robust call-to-action being the regeneration of indigenous spoken languages in homes, and the embrace of all other child literary legacies: songs, poetry, play, toys, visual aids, and sayings-idioms-proverbs. In addition, newer children’s literature genres must be made in indigenous languages; graphic novels (comic books), colouring books, and news and information, to name a few.

It is the responsibility of every adult to tool and inspire children to be skilled and proud speakers of indigenous languages.

  • A clarion call was made to all adults, be they parents, older siblings, teachers or community members, that this movement needs them not just as producers and presenters of this content, but also as exemplary role models and vigorous influencers.

Every child must be able to access books nearby. Those books must be in languages they understand.

  • 80% of South Africa’s 24,894 public schools (June 2022), do not have a school library. This number excludes the many different kinds of early childhood centres, institutions and homes.
  • Just 2% of the books published in South Africa are in an African language.

21st century technologies are the only way forward.

  • We are in the 4th Industrial Revolution. Contemporary digital tools and resources must be deployed to promote children’s literature in African languages 
  • The possibilities for contributors in this space are limitless and themself require specific South Africa-centric avenues of discourse, planning and implementation. There are unique opportunities for us to be global leaders. We have the motivation and skills sets, what is elusive are the resource investments.

Our languages need a significant creative presence in the multimedia universe.

  • Edutainment is an impactful tool for preservation and promotion in children’s worlds.
  • New opportunities are forever presenting themselves such as the digital video streaming services and social media.
  • Radio is still royalty in many South African homes. We need to make greater use of radio to promote books in our languages.

Today’s young demand diverse genres and more complex topics in their children’s literature. 

  • Themes for children’s literature must themselves reflect contemporary affairs, engage with complex issues youth are facing today, present real triumphs of the majority of our children, and tackle “taboo subjects”.
  • New genres enjoyed by children in non-African languages must find their way into indigenous literature:  cosmology, science fiction, space science, modern fantasy, present-day magic, historical fiction, and biographies and autobiographies. 

Professional development offerings need to be made available to current and future writers of children’s literature.

  • We must replicate the rich supportive ecosystem that is common among, for example, writers of children’s literature in English: resources showcasing how one writes for children, what one ought to write about, where and how to get published, show-and-tell videos abound, associations and chat-groups, quality social media accounts, guidelines, free e-learning courses at reputable institutions,  and other elements of a nurturing ecosystem.
  • In literature, children’s needs and wants are unique and the African child is especially deserving of quality content reflective of their often underrepresented and misrepresented worlds. 

Schools and the educational systems have a monumental responsibility to preserve and promote our indigenous languages.

  • National and provincial governments including minimally, the departments of education, arts and culture, human settlements, agriculture, forestry, digital communications, health, higher education, tourism, water and the Presidency could contribute significantly more to the children’s book production ecosystem. 
  • Some queries: Who will write books in our languages in adulthood when these languages are not widely taught at schools in childhood? How will our children read for meaning when the books are written in languages they neither know, nor learn in the real world they live in but only in the isolation of their classrooms? How do we promote social cohesion when we are so fragmented as language and literature workers? What uniquely South African experiences are lost when our children’s literature is not an early introduction to one another and to our country?

Children’s literature must become a serious area of intellectual inquiry; a plea to higher education.

  • The preservation and promotion of indigenous languages, including endangered languages, is doomed without the robust and wide involvement and leadership of academia, including but not limited to inter-institutional collaboration.
  • The tensions and imbalances in institutions of higher learning need a resolution; “institutions of higher learning need to review policies in which indigenous language literature, compared to academic papers, is not highly regarded for grading academic production.” 

Repatriation and inter-translation must be pursued with vigour.

  • There is a dominance of works translated from European colonial languages to Africa’s indigenous languages. Much is lost in this cultural chasm. Children’s literature needs more inter-translation, the cross-lingual rendition between African languages. 
  • In addition, we need a repatriation of children’s literature, the transposition of literary works from English (and other European languages) back into the languages of the authors and their language communities, e.g. Sol Plaatije’s works being translated into Setswana. 
  • Repeatedly, alarms were raised about how translations into African languages have mainly delivered work devoid of technical quality and full of cringeworthy and inaccurate cultural nuances. Furthermore, translating for children is a particularly unique subset competency of translation. We need a plethora of professionally trained translators specifically for children’s literature, a role South Africa’s multiple qualification bodies could embrace. 

We need an enabled and enabling publishing terrain.

  • Prohibitive. That’s the word/synonym many used about South Africa’s indigenous language publication universe. For most who have wanted to pursue this dream further, everything about it is repressive and gatekeepers include commercial publishers, bookstore corporations, independent and self-publishers, and, getting on to the Department of Education’s setworks list is akin to “attempting space travel when all you have is a bucket and a dream.” In summary, unless we address blockages in the current ecosystem our languages will be threatened with extinction. 
  • Questions that must be asked and addressed: What are the real investments of programmes and initiatives across all government structures in indigenous language children’s literature publications? What are the actual monetary investments in publications made by NGOs working with reading, children’s literature, languages? How many corporations support indigenous language children’s book publishing as their CSI? What aspect of indigenous languages children’s publications are high networth individuals (HNWIs) making? What about bookstores? Digital spaces? Any other entities?

Public celebrations of children’s literature in indigenous languages must be plentiful and magnificent.

  • We must affirm and honour our stories, our books, our writers and illustrators, our literacy activists, and our publishers. 
  • We need to address some serious challenges: How many children’s literature awards do we have? Do our parents and teachers rush to go buy the books that have just won prestigious or less well known awards? Do publishers do a rushed reprint to fulfil the consumer’s appetite after the announcement of such a prize? Do our motion picture studios and directors rush to the laureate to negotiate having their book made into film? Where is our Brand South Africa recognition in the indigenous languages children’s literature universe? 

Existing strategic partnerships in the indigenous languages ecosystem must be strengthened.

  • Our children deserve for our collaborations to be values-based and outcomes-focused, and always attending to what is in the best interests of the African child. What are we actually achieving for our children? 
  • The clarion call for all the needs of preserving and promoting indigenous languages in children’s literature, requires all of society, not just those involved with the book ecosystem.

We require differentiated investments made in and tailored attention paid to endangered languages.

  • The UN has declared an International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032, at a time when half of the world’s approximately 6000 languages are at risk for extinction by the end of this century. This includes our endangered languages like N/uu.
  • We need an intensive focus on our languages spoken at home by the fewest South Africans: isiNdebele (1.6%), Siswati (2.8%), Tshivenda (2.5%) and Xitsonga (3.6%). 

The webinars concluded with a call for similar engagements to be held with  greater regularity and each concluding with a proactive call-to-action. Potential future topics were listed and appreciation was expressed to Puku for the groundbreaking webinar series.