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A South African spreads the word among the illiterate

The worst thing about growing up a bookworm in a South African squatter camp wasn’t the dearth of books.

Reading was “un-African,” William Gumede remembers. It wasn’t manly, like sports or kite-flying. So if you did get your hands on a book, you’d better have a good place to hide it, or you’d get a beating and see your book ripped up.

The day he heard that a mobile library was coming to a nearby township in Eastern Cape province, he and a friend walked miles to see it, and the library card he was given changed his life.

“It opened another world for me, a world running parallel to my own world,” says Gumede, 41. “I read about boys my age doing all kinds of things in other parts of the world. It broadened my horizons.”

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But every time he went to the library, his book carefully hidden in a plastic shopping bag, he had to brave the gangs of boys he’d meet along the way.

“To be seen with a book was to be seen as sissy, so I had many fights. I remember very clearly, one of the books got torn. It was one of the boys three years older than me. He said: ‘Why have you got a book? What’s wrong with you?’ Five or six others tried to grab the book, and in the struggle a page was torn out.”

Today, Gumede is a prominent political biographer who recently began writing children’s books. He is part of a chorus of writers and educators who are wondering how South Africa can attain its dream of a successful multiracial democracy if great swaths of the population don’t read books.

Seventeen years after Nelson Mandela’s election as South Africa’s first black president ended a racist education system, reading still hasn’t caught on in squatter camps and townships.

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“Reading isn’t cool,” Gumede said. “The problem is that broadly in South Africa, we don’t have a reading culture. One sad post-apartheid phenomenon is that people don’t value books or ideas.”

The nation’s two most prominent politicians, President Jacob Zuma and the head of the ruling African National Congress youth league, Julius Malema, are both badly educated and poorly read.

“People do look at Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, who have done well without reading widely or being educated,” Gumede said. “So people say, ‘Why should I do it, what’s in it for me?’ Instead, all you have to do is to join the ANC.”

Jean Williams of Biblionef, a charity that distributes thousands of free books to schools around South Africa, said poverty has played a role in discouraging reading: “If you have to decide whether to buy a book or a loaf of bread for your children, you’ll choose bread.”

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But Williams says the problem is rooted in the culture as well. Just as when Gumede was a boy, books are still seen as uncool. Williams says many parents do not read to their children or keep books in the house.

Many children read only when they go to school, and they associate books with study and work, not pleasure, she said. Donated books commonly go unread. “I often come to schools and find the box of books is still there, unopened.”

Colleen Whitfield, children’s books manager at the Exclusive Books chain, said many organizations are working to get books to children in rural communities.

She said that the lack of a reading culture is a major problem for the country. “During apartheid a lot of people were denied access to reading, and I think that is something that will impact for generations to come.”

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When Gumede decided to write a children’s book, publishers told him there was no market. People asked him when he was going to get back to “serious” writing.

Like most of his peers, Gumede was raised by his mother. With no paternal role model, he had to discover for himself what being a father meant. He reads bedtime stories to his sons, now ages 9, 7 and 5, and just as his mother used to tell him and his siblings the stories of her childhood, he tells his sons the stories of his life.

One of the stories became his first children’s book, “A Kite’s Flight,” about a South African township boy named Andile who makes a kite with his father. The kite flies, breaks free and swoops over some of the great sights of Africa, including Victoria Falls, Lake Victoria and Mt. Kilimanjaro, before hooking briefly onto a pyramid and then descending onto a North African beach, where a boy named Ahmad finds it and repairs it with his father.

“When I was little, flying kites was always one of the escapes: making a kite and flying it. I used to wonder, when it flew up to the sky, which other countries and other parts of Africa it would fly to. I’d always make the biggest kite in the township. Being able to do that, I stood out amongst the township kids.”

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Fear was a constant presence in his childhood, he says. When his mother went off to work a night shift, she would lock him and his siblings and cousins in their leaking one-room tin shack. They shared one bed, and he still remembers how his heart beat as he heard the darkness of the squatter camp ripped by screams, the cries of rage or pain.

“It was always scary, being by yourself, with your siblings, and some drunk person would come and knock on your door,” he said. “If someone was crying or being beaten up next door, you would hear every little cry.”

One night, a fire swept through the camp. Gumede and his siblings, locked in their tin shack, were lucky to survive.

Reading was not the only thing that set him apart: Few children went beyond primary school, and his friends were stunned to hear he was going to high school.

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“In the community, aspirations were exceptionally low,” he said. “I remember being annoyed. The idea was that I would just give up and just do what everyone else did.”

The selection of books at the mobile library was limited. There wouldn’t be anything revolutionary on the shelves, or anything written by a black African. But there was plenty of what he craved: Hans Christian Andersen and other European adventures and fables.

Once he found a rare treasure, “The Fire Next Time,” by James Baldwin, the African American writer, about U.S. race relations in the early 1960s. How it got into the library mystified him.

“It made so much sense. I thought, here’s a man in another country who sees the world in exactly the same way I see the world. For me, that was profound.” It would be years before he would get his hands on another Baldwin book.

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In time, the family moved out of their shack into a tiny township house in the Western Cape, and eventually the bookworm went to the university in Cape Town — the first in his family to do so — where he studied political science and economics.

He got into politics, joined the ANC, worked for the trade union council, got a job as a journalist and helped edit the nation’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission report. Later he was editor of the Sowetan newspaper. He earned his master’s degree in the Netherlands, and wrote a biography of South Africa’s then-president, “Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC.”

“A Kite’s Flight” sold 5,000 copies, a strong performance in South Africa’s limited market. Illustrated by Maja Sereda, it won a 2011 Crystal Kite Award from the international Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators.

Gumede is working on a new book about a township boy’s security blanket. He struggles to interest publishers in some of his other works for children. One publisher asked him to rewrite the story of the Gingerbread Man, with an African twist. He agreed, setting it in the Valley of a Thousand Hills in KwaZulu-Natal province.

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He is disappointed by the lack of interest in original African stories. “We’ve got so much to tell. There’s so much potential in building an indigenous market here, with the growing middle class here and across the continent.”

Gumede’s passion is to overcome the lingering, anti-intellectual prejudice in many parts of South Africa and foster a culture of reading in black communities.

And he’s won some converts.

When “A Kite’s Flight” was published, someone sheepishly called him after reading about it in a magazine.

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“Do you remember me?” a voice asked Gumede, giving his name. Gumede struggled to recall.

It was one of the boys who used to beat him up on his way to the library.

robyn.dixon@latimes.com


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