It is through reading and book clubs as catalysts that we can learn about tolerance towards one another, says Niq Mhlongo.
In life, we tend to take so many things for granted, until we look at it through the next person’s eye. On 16 April, I was invited to give a talk to the inmates of the juvenile section at the Westville Prison in Durban.
What impressed me was that the inmates had formed a book club inside the correctional facility. Most of them had read my book Dog Eat Dog, and it was available at their library.
After my one-hour talk about writing and publishing, one of the inmates made me realise how privileged I am to be outside the prison walls. He asked if he could read me a page of his handwritten manuscript, and I obliged.
The boy could have been between 14 and 16 years of age, and he wanted me to help him publish his manuscript. After reading passionately for about five minutes, he confided in me, saying that he had been in prison for almost three years. But it was what he said about his inspiration that stayed with me for a long time, and these are his words:
“What I miss most is the soil and its smell when it is wet after the rain. Looking at this concrete every day may be depressing. Everything around us here and under our feet is concrete. I miss the voices of little children playing or crying. It is only when I visit the prison library and read a book that I am in touch with the outside world.”
An Effective Rehabilitation Tool
These touching words opened my eyes and made me realise that reading and book clubs may be an important and effective rehabilitation tool in South African correctional facilities.
Westville is not the first prison that I have visited. In the past, I have been to the Polokwane Correctional Centre in the Limpopo province to facilitate writing workshops, and teach inmates how to review books. In Barkly West in the Northern Cape, I gave talks and did book readings.
My experience with these facilities has shown me that book clubs have an enormous, positive influence on the personal and emotional development of young and old alike. They ensure that people become culturally active and socially involved.
Book clubs help young people to overcome illiteracy and ignorance, and also naturally help strengthen a culture of reading.
They introduce young people who might be suffering hardships to the immeasurable comfort found in a book. Book clubs create a space where people can meet, and an opportunity to exchange views.
They make important contributions to the national discourse, and they are a natural platform for intense discussions. They may be a seed we need to sprout discussions around everything, from the literacy rate to corruption and the land question.
Every October, a book-club competition called Funda Mzantsi is held in George in the Western Cape. This project is an initiative by the National Library of South Africa (NLSA) and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS).
It is their outreach programme to support and assist communities to establish and sustain book clubs. How it works, is that the NLSA donates books to the identified schools and learners to encourage them to read and discuss books as part of their book-club programmes.
There is a Funda Mzantsi Championship, an annual competition to assess book clubs’ reading and comprehension abilities. This means that book clubs have to register with the NLSA to compete in the competition. The DCS has joined this programme to rehabilitate inmates or its residents by making reading a national priority.
Last year, Funda Mzantsi chose my novel Dog Eat Dog to be read and reviewed by 71 book clubs from schools and correctional services from around South Africa. For me, this is an important milestone in the country’s progress towards the healing of our nation.
Connecting Past And Future
The heightened culture of reading is a fundamental ingredient in the growth of our society. Books have the power to connect our past with our future. Every word written or performed has the magic to bridge the distances and spaces.
Nigerian novelist, poet, professor, and critic Chinua Achebe once said, “The triumph of the written word is often attained when the writer achieves union and trust with the reader, who then becomes ready to be drawn into unfamiliar territory, walking in borrowed literary shoes so to speak, toward a deeper understanding of self or society, or of foreign people, cultures and situations.”
This is most relevant in South Africa today with the challenges that we are facing regarding xenophobia, homophobia, patriarchy, Afrophobia, illiteracy, unemployment, landlessness, and immigration.
It is through reading and book clubs as catalysts that we can learn about tolerance towards one another, irrespective of race, sexual orientation, gender, or creed.