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Rewriting nursery rhymes to eradicate gender-based violence

15 December 2020 - 12:43 By Sindiwe Magona and nal'ibali
Award-winning SA author and long-time literacy activist Sindiwe Magona has created modernised retellings of noxious children's rhymes.
Award-winning SA author and long-time literacy activist Sindiwe Magona has created modernised retellings of noxious children's rhymes.
Image: Supplied

Nal'ibali column No 29 Term 4 2020

Babies come into the world ready to learn what it means to be human, and it is the responsibility of the grown-ups into whose laps they fall to teach them, just as their caregivers taught them when they first arrived on earth.

All we know and all we will ever know, is what we have learnt. Therefore, while we all lament the sad fact that SA is, if not the leader, then among the leading countries for gender-based violence (GBV), there is an attendant truth we may overlook: we have the criminals we deserve.

Babies came into the world with no knowledge of violence — no child is born violent or with any other attitude — children become what society teaches them, whether such teaching is intentional or accidental.

From the start, children learn language from their parents, siblings, friends, teachers, and the profuse word-world around them. And, because of their songlike characteristics (they are repetitive, rhythmic, and musical), nursery rhymes are universal and often where language learning begins.

Little ones thrill at this taste of language. Both their vocabularies and understanding of the world expand. We call this language acquisition and the gurgles, smiles, wide eyes; jiggling little legs and fists attest to its interactive and emotional components.

uNomathemba is a popular nursery rhyme in isiXhosa. Though its structure is in the form of a dialogue, a lot of its real meaning is unstated in its call and response format. It is its underlying nature that is truly alarming for it spells acceptance of the normative behaviours that uphold GBV in our country. isiXhosa is spoken as a first language by about 8.2 million people in SA and by another 11 million as a second language.

If we are not careful as to what we teach our children, we might unwittingly be instilling violent behaviours in millions of babies and young children:


Wena Nomathemba, ubethwe ngubani?
Yila ndoda!
Iphi ngoku?
Nants’ esapha!
Khawuyibiz’ izapha.
Owu, hayi ndiyonqena
Owu, hayi ndiyonqena
Owu, hayi ndiyonqena
As’ke ehla amathamb’ ukubhek’ ezantsi, as’ke ehla amathamb’ ukubhek’ ezantsi.


Nomathemba, who hit you?
That man!
Where is he now?
Over there!
Call him over here!
No, I’m too lazy to do that!
Take the horse!
No, I’m too lazy to do that!
Take the donkey!
No, I’m too lazy to do that!
Then I give up.

Superficially in isiXhosa, the nursery rhyme is quite delightful. It has an engaging call and answer format, lots of action, an identifiable beginning, middle and end, and it is a real story!

However, it is fraught with outmoded, outdated, seductive notions: power relations between men and women and lack of agency in women. These are ideals and habits which cannot but lead to gender-based violence, unequal opportunities for women, the sexual exploitation of women and more.

With time, beliefs and attitudes can change. "Spare the rod and spoil the child" is no more. "A wife not beaten is unloved" no longer convinces anyone of the rightness of such acts. But rhymes such as uNomathemba have not been revised to comply with these changed attitudes.

Children - and for that matter, grown-ups too - often unintentionally pick up "truths" unconsciously. Society must take great care when deciding what to expose its children to.

While robust and lively rhythms and accompanying actions may enthral the children — illegal and noxious rhymes like uNomathemba must be revisited and reissued with either explanation of its history or with a modernised version. Then society would stand a chance of raising children with healthier attitudes.

Sindiwe Magona is an award-winning SA author and long-time literacy activist. To read her modernised retelling of uNomathemba in isiXhosa or English, visit the Nal’ibali reading-for-enjoyment campaign’s website at www.nalibali.org.