Friday, April 15, 2011

The Delicious Word Journey

One of the problems facing the new South Africa is that for many families there is no culture of reading, let alone reading to kids.  There are probably two main factors underlying this unfortunate situation.  First, the apartheid government had a policy of not educating Black South Africans for anything other than menial tasks.  In reality, millions of Black kids never went to school at all.  It is the children who should have been at school during the latter years of apartheid, who are now raising families.  Second, poverty is still widespread in South Africa.  Consequently buying books (which are outrageously expensive) is low on families’ priority lists, if it is on it at all.
In my little town of Knysna, we are in the midst of an effort to make a positive impact on this situation.  For 4 days the Knysna Literary Festival will take place at multiple venues around town – a festival we hope to make an annual event.
I am involved in three different ways.  First I am getting friends to spend an hour in the local library reading to school kids from ages 6 to 9.  The librarians tell me that the kids use the library quite a lot, but usually only for information.  It is not common for them to check a book out purely for pleasure.  So the task of my readers is to excite the kids so they want to read for themselves.
I was in the library this morning watching an orderly procession of uniformed kids walk quietly into the reading room, sit down, and listen with rapt attention.  They reacted, laughed, and enjoyed themselves.  At the end, they all stood up and sang a thank you song for my friend Linda who had been working with them.  Then, before they left, the teacher asked if they would sing the national anthem.  They stood, hands on hearts, and sang the anthem, which is in five languages, with enthusiasm.  I choked up.   
 Here are the words of the anthem
Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika
(God Bless Africa)
Maluphakanyisw' uphondo lwayo,
(Raise high Her glory)
Yizwa imithandazo yethu,
(Hear our Prayers)
Nkosi sikelela, thina lusapho lwayo.
(God bless us, we her children)

Morena boloka setjhaba sa heso,
(God protect our nation)
O fedise dintwa le matshwenyeho,
(End all wars and tribulations)
O se boloke, O se boloke setjhaba sa heso,
(Protect, protect our nation)
Setjhaba sa South Afrika - South Afrika.
(Our nation South Africa, South Africa)

Uit die blou van onse hemel,
(Ringing out from our blue heavens)
Uit die diepte van ons see,
(From our deep seas breaking round)
Oor ons ewige gebergtes,
(Over everlasting mountains)
Waar die kranse antwoord gee,
(Where the echoing crags resound)

Sounds the call to come together,
And united we shall stand,
Let us live and strive for freedom,
In South Africa our land.

If you want to listen to this beautiful anthem sung by the Soweto Gospel Choir, go to

There are activities such as short-story competitions for both kids and adults, Slam Poetry contests in the classrooms and performances by the remarkable Khoi Khonnexion, who perform the spoken word to the accompaniment of indigenous Khoi musical instruments.  The kids lap these activities up and, hopefully, find pleasure in words.

There are also opportunities for published and hopeful writers.  Published writers spend time in the Lit Fest Lounge – an informal area in one of the shopping malls – where people can drop in and chat about the author’s books or their research or whatever.  Writers yet to be published can attend writing workshops or talks ranging from traditional to self-publishing.  And then there are opportunities for people to learn how to make books – from hand-sewn to high-tech.

This evening, I am participating in the Delicious Food Journey – a literary equivalent to a pub crawl.  Participants all meet at a central location in town, where they are greeted with snacks and wine.  One author then spends 15 to 20 minutes talking about his or her books, which could range from cooking, to crime fiction, to romance.  Four minibus taxis then take the crowd to four separate private homes.  The evening’s second course is served, plus more wine.  The author at that house then has time to chat with the guests.  After half an hour, the taxis take their fares to the next house, where the process is repeated.  By the end of the evening, everyone will have had a full dinner with wine paired appropriately.  The taxis then drop (perhaps literally) everyone back at their own vehicles.  Hopefully at least one person per car has been relatively abstemious.  And I hope at least one glass of wine remains when everyone has left.

The weekend wraps up with a movie based on a local author’s ninth book, the search for the fabled Knysna forest elephants, long thought to be extinct.  After months of searching through the thick indigenous forests that surround the town, Gareth Paterson finally succeeded in photographing them.  I can’t wait to watch the movie.

The goals of the Knysna Literary Festival are to instill a love of reading in kids, to collect books from more affluent homes for distribution into the local, underfunded libraries, and to raise money for the Knysna Education Trust – a non-profit that provides a variety of support to ensure a decent education is available to all kids. 

Next year, I am going to try to attract some of South Africa’s crime writers to a mini crime-fest to be held during the Festival.  Perhaps one year I can get my fellow Murder is Everywhere bloggers to come as well – with a promise of a private, personalized safari guided by Michael and me, and endless picnic lunches in the gardens of wineries that are over three hundred years old.

Stan - Friday


  1. Stan,
    Loved the anthem.
    Gave me goosebumps.
    Wanna see the photos Gareth Paterson took.
    What's the name of his book?
    And I'm in for the picnic lunches.

  2. Lovely post, Stan. Please let your U.S. friends know how we can help. Perhaps I could host a fundraiser here when you return to Mpls. xoxo

  3. Thanks Kit, we'll talk when I'm in Minneapois. Leighton, the book's name is The Secret Elephants by Penguin, South Africa. The movie also shows periodically on Animal Planet.

    It is now the morning after! The Delicious Word Journey was a wonderful event. About 50 people participated, in four groups. I spoke to each group for 15 to 20 minutes and they were surprisingly attentive, given that free good wine was available at each stop. Even better, I sold out of the books that I took with me. Many people told me the evening was one of the most enjoyable they'd had in a long time.

  4. You know how to keep a fellow in suspense, Stan. It took me until the last paragraph before I realized it looks like I won't have to find some charming way of wangling a way to next year's festival:). Sounds terrific!