Rooted in History - Elinor Sisulu Stresses the Need for Imaginative Literature for African Children
Larson, Charles R., The World and I
Charles R. Larson is professor of literature at American University in Washington, D.C. He is the author of The Emergence of African Fiction (1972), The Novel in the Third World (1978), American Indian Fiction (1978), Invisible Darkness: Jean Toomer and Nella Larsen (1993), and Under African Skies: Modern African Stories (1997). He coedited an anthology of short fiction by authors from around the globe, Worlds of Fiction (1993), with Roberta Rubenstein. This article is adapted from a chapter in Larson's latest book, The Ordeal of the African Writer (Zed Books, 2001).
Elinor Batezat Sisulu was born in 1958 in Salisbury, Rhodesia---- Salisbury, of course, is now called Harare and Rhodesia, Zimbabwe. Today Sisulu is an author of children's books, and children frequently ask if she had already decided on her career when she was young. She shared her usual response in a letter she wrote me in 1998: "I would have been considered completely mad. The horizons of a black child growing up in Rhodesia in the 1960s were very limited. Successful people in our society were either teachers or nurses. Those who set their sights high could aspire to be lawyers or doctors, but a writer? Never. This was something completely outside our experience. As for a writer of children's books, this was something quite unheard of."
As a child at school, Sisulu nevertheless showed a talent for writing, prompting her when somewhat older to consider journalism as a career. She was warned, however, that "journalism was reckless, dangerous, and an unreliable occupation, so I quickly put the idea away until I grew up."
The books Sisulu read as a child "were about the English countryside. My head was filled with a vision of snow, goblins, and pixies." Her favorite writers were Charles Dickens, Enid Blyton, and Richard Crompton. "If I came across Africa at all in the course of my reading, it was in the stories about missionaries, explorers and exotic jungles- -nothing to do with my own reality. My own culture and society was never reflected in the printed word. Perhaps this is why the idea of being a writer was so alien in our society. Books were about a differing and exciting world. I would never have dreamed of writing about my own experiences or of those of people around me--I thought my own world was too boring and mundane."
Elinor Batezat entered the University of Zimbabwe in Harare in 1976. She studied English and history and was introduced to African literature. After graduation, she worked for the government in the Ministry of Manpower Planning and Development. In 1985, she took a leave of absence from her job to pursue a master's degree in development studies in the Netherlands, at the Institute of Social Studies at The Hague. There she was introduced to feminist ideology and began her professional writing career. She returned to Zimbabwe in 1986 and married Max Sisulu, a South African exile who worked for the African National Congress, that same year. Shortly thereafter, they moved to Lusaka, Zambia, where they both continued to work for the ANC. Following the social and political changes that culminated in the end of apartheid, they were able to move to South Africa in 1991.
About the same time, Sisulu began writing more imaginative material than the academic research she had been producing. For a brief period, she worked for Speak, a South African feminist magazine produced for black working-class and rural women. Then she received a Ford Foundation grant to write a joint biography of her husband's parents, South African leaders Walter and Albertina Sisulu. The grant took her to Radcliffe College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for several months in 1993.
The major event that led her to write her first children's book grew out of South Africa's first democratic elections in April 1994. In an account of her life, Sisulu wrote that when she was still a university student, she had observed her own country's 1980 democratic election and experienced firsthand the excitement of that extraordinary period. Thus, the South African election fourteen years later presented a second opportunity to observe history dramatically reversing itself. The incident that inspired her occurred while she was working at one of the polling booths:
"A shabbily dressed old man came to vote on the last morning of the election. Because the photograph on his tattered identity document was so worn out that his image was unrecognizable, the document could not be considered a valid form of identity. With heavy hearts, we had to explain to him that the only way he could vote was to get a temporary registration document at the Home Affairs office in the city center. It was painful to witness his disappointment as he turned away, bitter disappointment written all over his face. We knew he was unlikely to return--there was no public transport to town because the election days had been declared public holidays. Even if he did manage to get there, the queues of people trying to get temporary identity documents were several kilometers long."
"By five thirty in the afternoon, there was just a trickle of voters coming in. The polling booth was virtually empty and the staff had started to pack up. The presiding officer had taken out the box of chocolates she had brought as a reward for the last voter. Five minutes before closing time, the old man hobbled in, triumphantly waving his temporary registration card! He had managed to walk all the way to town, queue for several hours for his card and walk all the way back with a few minutes to spare. It was hard to tell who was happier, the voter or the polling officers. We jumped back to attention and put him through the steps of the voting process. When he cast his ballot, the presiding officer presented him with his box of chocolates while another officer photographed him. Overjoyed and bewildered by the unexpected moment of celebrity, he acknowledged the rousing applause of the polling booth staff. We applauded with relief. For us the incident symbolized the incredible spirit and determination of the voters and justified the three days of arduous work at our little polling booth."
The children's book that grew out of this incident was The Day Gogo Went to Vote, published in the United States in 1996. Initially, a television company asked Sisulu to write an account of her observations during the voting. Once it was written, however, she showed her story to a visiting American friend, and that friend took a copy back to the United States and gave it to an editor at Little, Brown. The book was quickly accepted for publication, an illustrator was found, and both American and British editions were published.
The Day Gogo Went to Vote was frequently cited as one of the most significant children's books for the year. It won several awards, including the Best Children's Book award of the African Studies Association, the Jane Addams Award for books promoting peace and democracy, and the 1999 Parents' Choice Gold Award. Sales in the United States have subsequently reached twenty-two thousand copies. One year after its U.S. publication, South Africa's Tafelberg Publishers released the book in six languages: Zulu, Xhosa, Sotho, Sepedi, Tswana, and Afrikaans.
As an author of literature for children, Sisulu has been deeply concerned about the decline of oral storytelling in African societies. "If our stories are not written down and at the same time they are no longer being perpetuated through our oral traditions, they will disappear completely and in the process we will lose a valuable part of our history."
Sisulu's desire to write for children was intensified by thinking of her own sons, Vuyisilerand (born 1986) and Duma (born 1988). Although she has made sure that they have had access to children's literature, "There is still a dearth of contemporary stories set in their own environment. I decided that I should write the kind of stories that I should have been able to read when I was a child." She defines her goal as "preserving history." About The Day Gogo Went to Vote, she states, "I have been able to express my feelings about the way the elderly are treated and valued in our society, to celebrate the special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren, and to transmit a very special part of our history to future generations."
It is no surprise that Sisulu holds strong opinions about the need for children's literature in African societies. Books are too expensive for most Africans to buy, and illustrated books--the kind she knows children need--are even more expensive to produce. Bookshops, she fears, will not stock them if they are priced too high. Thus, in Africa, the very kinds of books most suitable for establishing reading patterns among children become even more problematic than books for adults.
Nor do African teachers see the need for such imaginative works, which are often perceived by educators as "supplementary" reading. Sisulu points out, "Many teachers do not read widely, and consequently do not use children's literature in the classroom. Teachers tend to focus on the mechanical act of reading and writing, and not on using the story as a means to educate. Many teachers are not even aware that there is a substantive body of indigenous children's literature." Sadly, Sisulu's comments regarding the myopia of certain educators about children's literature all too true.
In part to promote her book, but also to return to the city of her birth, Sisulu attended the Zimbabwe International Book Fair in Harare in August 1998. She thought it would be nice to visit the primary school she had attended as a child and to present a talk about her book and her career as a writer. Her plan backfired, however, because she had not anticipated the bureaucratic obstacles that would prevent her visit.
On August 5, the Herald reported that the headmaster of Moffat Primary School "told her that she could not be allowed to see the pupils unless she was cleared by the Ministry of Education, Sport and Culture" ("Former Student Barred from Seeing Pupils at Old School," the Herald). Sisulu commented, "All I wanted was to see how the children were doing and maybe donate a few books. I was taken aback when the headmaster told me that I must seek clearance from the regional director. Surely, former students need to be treated with some respect."
At a writers' workshop held at the book fair later in the week, Sisulu was less accommodating. A second article in the Herald cites her remarks at the workshop. The article begins, "Governments within the Southern Africa Development Community should ensure that more books published by local authors are integrated into the school curriculum instead of imported books by foreign authors" ("Include Books in Syllabus," the Herald). Sisulu is quoted as saying that Shakespeare's popularity with African readers is due to his presence in the school curriculum and that if African writers were also included, their popularity would also be assured. Citing examples from other areas of the world where books have been promoted in churches and even at athletic events, Sisulu also proposed that "stakeholders in the book industry must also formulate aggressive ways of marketing books instead of traditional marketing systems."
One hopes that the African publishers will soon pay attention to such suggestions from authors. For her part, Elinor Batezat Sisulu will continue unwaveringly to stress the need for imaginative literature for African children, especially when this writing is rooted in historyl.
Currently she serves as a board member of the Centre for the Book and is a member of the South African Children's Book Forum. In 1999, Sisulu sat on the panel of judges for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize and was on the selection panel for the UNESCO children's literature prize; in 2000, she served as a judge for the SANLAM prize for young literature. Sisulu is also deeply involved in an initiative to establish a children's literature network to promote indigenous literature in southern Africa.n…
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Publication information: Article title: Rooted in History - Elinor Sisulu Stresses the Need for Imaginative Literature for African Children. Contributors: Larson, Charles R. - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 17. Issue: 2 Publication date: February 2002. Page number: 269. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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