True building blocks for the future

Posted on June 16, 2014


Books ’n Bricks at Manyano School
by Sindiwe Magona
isbn: 978-1-4856-0133-3
(Publisher: David Philip, R99)

It was singularly appropriate that this book was launched at the Cape Town Book Fair during the weekend preceding South Africa’s national Youth Day public holiday, June 16. Because, as with every Youth Day since the transition in 1994 to a non-racist political dispensation, much continues to be written, said and broadcast about hopes for a better way forward in a land bedeviled by poverty and inequality and all the resultant social ills.

But the story of Manyano School provides a clear indication, a signpost to a potentially more stable, egalitarian and healthy future. It is a fictionalised account only in that the tale of the transformation of a school in a desperately poor and gangster ridden township is narrated in the words of an 11-year-old school student.

An isiXhosa edition, translated by Magona, is currently being printed and an Afrikaans version is being prepared. The publisher also plans editions in several other national languages.

The life, times and attitude of Salmina Arends, in whatever language, will be instantly identifiable, especially to children living in the often squalid sprawl of townships on the Cape Flats. But her descriptions of her life and school will ring true to millions of children in similar deprived circumstances anywhere. And there is a glossary of specifically South African and Afrikaans words such as vrot (rotten) at the back of the book for those unfamiliar with the few used here.

As the opening sentences note: “Manyano School was a scary place, no kidding! The fence had holes big enough for a grown man to run through. And grown men did. The walls of the buildings were thirsty for paint. The buildings themselves looked scared. The schoolyard was full of weeds and rubbish: broken bottles, out-of-shape cans, skins from long-ago-eaten bananas, mango pips and things you could no longer tell what they had been before they all came and got vrot there. We never played in our schoolyard. Too scared of what might happen. And a lot happened in that yard…and most of it wasn’t nice stuff. Until…”

Until it was that a new head teacher, a principal, came to the school with strange ideas that he even wanted to share with the children. And so it happened that the community and the school fused together, with the school and its facilities becoming the hub of an effective collective. The bricks part of the title of the book comes from the fact that a brick and block making project developed in the school grounds, involving unemployed parents. Then there were vegetable gardens, the science and environmental projects.

Told through the words of Salmina, the story is true in all but minor details; it is the compression of many years of hard and often frustrating work by the dedicated principal and staff of Zerilda Park Primary School in Cape Town’s Lavender Hill township and the neighbouring Vrygrond (Free Ground) informal settlement. The school, like so many others, was a slum within a slum.

Magona was inspired to write the book after meeting former Zerilda Park principal, Allistair Witten and hearing how the school had been transformed in the years following 1994. In collaboration with early literacy educator and children’s book author Ellen Mayer, she has produced a delightful, inspiring story beautifully illustrated by Nicole Blomkamp and that lays the groundwork for the concept of community schools.

It is this concept that Al Witten developed further at Harvard University where he completed a PhD in education before returning to South Africa. Now based at the Nelson Mandela University in the Eastern Cape city of Port Elizabeth, he is engaged in developing the idea of schools as a hub for community collaboration along a “corridor” extending outward from the university. This is based on his earlier experiences in Lavender Hill.

As he writes in his afterword to Books ’n Bricks: “Zerilda Park Primary School became a hive of activity for students, families and community members. It was a place where students wanted to be. It was a place of learning and a place of fun. And it was safe.” In other words, what every school could — or should — be.

Posted in: Book Reviews