Q&A with children’s authors Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali

03 February 2020 - 12:15 By Carla Lever
Authors Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali with the book they wrote about a young girl who learns to love her natural African hair.
Authors Sihle Nontshokweni and Mathabo Tlali with the book they wrote about a young girl who learns to love her natural African hair.
Image: Supplied

Nal'ibali column No 3 Term 1 2020

Congratulations on Wanda, your children’s story about a young girl who learns to love her natural African hair. What message do you hope Wanda can bring, not just to children, but also to parents and educators?

For children, we wish Wanda would become a healing balm. We want children to accept their most authentic selves earlier in life, and to feel free to choose how they wish to wear their hair. For parents, we want to encourage teaching cultural pride through affirming stories and by providing a positive lens through which children can view themselves and their lived worlds. For teachers, we want to challenge unconscious stereotypes. We want to invite teachers to interrogate their schools' traditions, and question whether these facilitate a sense of belonging or whether they perpetuate exclusion. We want to invite teachers to a more fulfilling journey of creating schools where all children feel like they belong.

Every year in SA we seem to start off the same way, with black girls being sent home because their natural hair is somehow judged inappropriate for school. How can this still be happening in 2020?

Before the signing of the South African Schools Act in 1996, non-white learners were mostly not permitted into formerly white schools. That meant the majority of the school codes of conduct were created at a time where there was trepidation and uncertainty around what it would be like to suddenly have mixed classrooms. Since then, minimal training has taken place. Teachers still walk into the classroom with long-standing beliefs of what is and isn’t appropriate. Without active teacher training, we shouldn’t be shocked that black girls are subjected to natural hair judgement every year. The challenge is not just to react with rage and tweets, but actively take teachers and school leadership through diversity training which will highlight their unconscious bias.

Body positivity is one of the most important messages we can instill in young people. Who and what were your body-positive role models growing up?

In the book we have the four women from Mlungiseleli Drive. When teased by the boys in the bus, Wanda transports herself into these women’s world and viscerally feels their fearlessness and high self-regard. She recalls how they sway with confidence and style, disregarding the honking and catcalling by men in the street. She gains a pinch of poise and assurance from their role modelling. We featured this scene in the book because somehow it reminded us of the confident young women and aunts who lived in our communities growing up. They had style, a vibrant laugh, they were beautiful and struck us as being at ease with themselves, regardless of their body size. These are the women who nurtured body positivity in us. They showed us that you are more than just your body. Their spirit shone through.

How can storytelling help children become resilient and brave in real world situations?

The beauty of storytelling is its immersive nature. It allows children to enter a world which they believe, with little convincing. In that sacred world they find the language and tools they need to deal with the pressures of their external world. When stories are told effectively, children find their voice, and they use this voice to protect themselves.

The book is available in four of South Africa's languages. Why was that important for you to ensure?

The book deals with cultural pride, which Wanda learns when her grandmother teaches her about the lineage of women who wore their hair with pride. Language is an extension of such cultural pride. We want children to learn that their own world, how they speak at home, is also #WANDAful. If we want children to ground themselves in the fullness of who they are, then appreciating their language would be a great start.

What sparked your collaboration on this project?

Our friendship was solidified through the creative arts. When we were in high school together, we used to dream of having our own theatre and a scholarship for children in the arts. Through the years we stayed connected and shared our creative passions. Collaborating on the book was a natural extension of those long-shared childhood hopes of being on stage, telling stories.

What other issues would you like to see more local children's books tackling?

There are a range of issues which ought to be tackled to provide a safe space and language for children to express themselves. Absent fathers is one topic which needs delicacy and tact. Self-image is another. Worthiness is another, and a child’s anatomy and how they work through understanding their body. How children handle grief is also important. These are some of several topics we consider important in local children’s books.

Each year Nal’ibali raises awareness about the importance of reading aloud by celebrating World Read Aloud Day and calling on members of the public to help break its read aloud record. This year World Read Aloud Day falls on 5 February, and the campaign aims to read aloud to two million children. To get your copy of this year’s story in any official South African language and register your read aloud session, visit www.nalibali.org.