Story power in motion as tuk-tuk libraries take to the streets
'The aim is to make reading for enjoyment a hobby and for everyone to have access to library resources'
Nal'ibali Column 1: Term 1, 2019
Ideally, it shouldn’t matter where you live, you should be able to escape to an imaginary world inside a book whenever you want. South Africa’s situation isn’t ideal. Ironically, the people who would most benefit from access to free books are those least able to access well-stocked libraries.
Literacy NGO Nal’ibali is teaming up with four incredible women to change that. Sinothando Menzi, Julia Makganye, Ziyanda Xaso and Masiza Hlekwayo are all librarians on the move – women who work to bring books to you! Each one drives their own magical tuk-tuk, a small three-wheeled vehicle stocked full of books for people to borrow in different parts of the country.
The mobile libraries are designed to operate as closely to a regular library as possible. Their ingenious, fold-out structure allows for a remarkable 650 books to be stocked in one tuk-tuk. Each librarian has her own route, operating from Mondays to Thursdays. For Sinothando, this is Site B in Khayelitsha, Western Cape. “The aim is to make reading for enjoyment a hobby and for everyone in Khayelitsha to have access to library resources,” she says.
For Ziyanda, the project is personal. “I was raised in Mdantsane (Eastern Cape) and the schools that I will be serving on my route are the ones I went to as a child,” she says. “One of the reasons that I was able to succeed coming from the same background as the kids I serve was my love for reading. Everybody should have that opportunity.”
Ziyanda adds that she’s found communities incredibly receptive to the programme. “People welcome us because they recognise that their kids are struggling when it comes to reading with understanding. They’re always asking when we’re coming to their villages.”
In communities with scarce access to libraries, the concept of free book-borrowing is incredibly exciting. “Yes, people are very excited, especially the adults,” says Masiza. “They’re normally the ones complaining about the high prices of books. Having new ones to read really can feel like Christmas.”
Of the four librarians, only Ziyanda had access to books growing up. This experience has made a huge impact on each women’s drive to get books to the communities. “My school didn’t have a library on the premises,” said Sinothando. “I had to use what I could get my hands on.” For Masiza it was the same. “I grew up in deep rural areas with no libraries and even books in my schools. There were no books at all at home. The only time I got to read was when my older sister would go on a school outing to visit a library and they would be given books to bring back. I would then take the IsiZulu ones and read them all!”
“Nal’ibali is an organisation I wish existed when I was a learner,” says Julia, who operates the library in Soweto. “It is very vital because most of our communities in Soweto have only one library and most don’t live in close proximity to it. The mobile library will bridge the huge gap that exists and bring books to those who need them most!”
What kinds of books do the mobile libraries focus on stocking? “We will typically have 75% children's books and 25% adult books – adults need books too!” laughs Sinothando. “The books are always in the main languages spoken in the area,” adds Ziyanda. “In Mdantsane, the main language is isiXhosa, some English and very little Afrikaans. So our books reflect that mix. It’s the same for the others.”
The activists are involved in more than just helping people to choose a book, they also engage the borrowers with games and activities. Masiza worked in literacy mentorship before this and brings those skills to her job, doing activations to raise awareness, using games, songs, storytelling and writing.
“We’re adding more flavour to the great work which is being done by schools and traditional libraries by ensuring that we engage children and adults in games and activities before introducing them to the different books which they can borrow from the mobile library,” adds Sinothando.
“There is a history of staunch discipline when it comes to some kids interacting with figures of authority,” observes Ziyanda. “You find that they are sometimes subdued, not for lack of interest, but because they are a little intimidated. It’s therefore crucial to be able to interact with them through fun games and activities, so that they can view you as a safe place for them to be themselves.”
Safety is always a challenge when taking resources mobile. Each team has developed a strategy for ensuring they stay safe throughout their day. They keep a close relationship with SAPS, who often follow them on their routes, avoid crime hotspots and check in with their team.
Beyond that, there are other more mundane challenges. Ziyanda chuckles, “Yes, navigating the routes in a three-wheel tuk-tuk can be challenging, one has to be careful of balance with so many books, especially when turning!”
The stark inequality of public resources is hard to see. But for all the women, change is in the air. “My aim is to be as visible as I can in my community, to sound the Nal’ibali jingle as loud as we can so that the mobile library becomes a norm in daily lives,” says Julia.
“I love my work because of the people, mostly the children we meet,” says Sinothando. That sentiment is echoed by the other women. “Making an impact through books has the potential to change the entire trajectory of their lives,” says Ziyanda, as she prepares to take her tuk-tuk of tales back into her hometown. “Kids who read can go anywhere. I’m a prime example of that.”
Nal’ibali is South Africa’s reading-for-enjoyment campaign. Aimed at helping children to fall in love with books and reading, Nal’ibali is supporting adults and caregivers in championing children’s literacy in their communities through its FUNda Leader volunteer network and FUNda Sonke loyalty programme. Find out more at www.nalibali.org or www.nalibali.mobi.