For most of high school, I was barely home. And when I was, it was in the small bedroom that I shared with four other people, in our small RDP house in Braamfischerville in Soweto, reading. I have often told the story of why I read so much as a child, but it is important that I tell it again.
I was young when I realised that books were more than just tools to help me improve my command of language – that they were also a powerful escape. And I needed to escape from the conditions at home. I grew up in a poor working-class family where we barely had means. We very often did not know where the next meal would come from, and though my mother worked extremely hard to ensure that the basics were covered, she struggled significantly. This was made worse by the fact that she insisted on taking me to former model-C schools to get a better education. She could not afford these schools, and so sometimes I would not have bus fare to get to school or resources to buy necessities that were required.
This difficult economic environment made things unbearable at home because it affected the way we all related with one another. Many people do not know this, but the impact of poverty goes beyond the humiliation of lacking basic necessities. Poverty also impacts the mood in the home. People are always angry, because there is no bread, or because someone else ate more slices than they were supposed to. Sometimes a mother can be angry because she has no money to buy food and take out her frustrations on a child whose presence is a constant reminder of what she deems her failures as a parent.
In that environment, books became my sanctuary. I read anything and everything that I could get my hands on. Throughout high school, I had a membership of the Florida Community Library, and would take out many books every week. I would come back from school and head straight to the library to complete my homework, then take out a book and read. At any given time, I had no less than two books in my backpack and one in my hand. I read the entire collection of the Sweet Valley twins, and in many ways, Jessica and Elizabeth became my own friends. When I had finished with the library’s young adult fiction section, I moved onto adult fiction. By the time I matriculated, I had read more John Grisham and Danielle Steel than most adults had. Those books kept me sane in a home that would have driven me over the edge.
When President Cyril Ramaphosa announced that the country would be going on a 21-day lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, a pandemic that has torn the world asunder, my thoughts immediately went to children who, like a young Malaika, cannot bear the thought of being stuck at home for almost a month with family members who bring them trauma. I immediately wondered what the lockdown period would look like for a young boy who would be stuck with his abusive alcoholic father who had a propensity for violence, and a mother so terrified that she would curl in a corner and cry as her husband beat her within an inch of her life. I wondered what the lockdown would look like for a young girl who would be stuck with her abuser, who now had no escape. I wondered about the many young people who have considered suicide because home was a nightmare, but who stayed alive because school gave them hope. My heart bleeds for these young people, because once upon a time I too rued the thought of being home with people who caused me unimaginable pain.
I hope that if you are one such young person, if home is a place of trauma for you, you find something worth living for. And even if it might not seem so right now, there truly is a lot to hope for. While we all wait for the lockdown to end, and for us to return to school and to our friends who are the bridge across our sorrows, I hope that FunDza is going to be to you what the Florida Community Library was to me: a sanctuary. There are many beautiful stories that you can read to pass the time, and an entire world of literary beauty to explore. These stories can be healing if we allow them to be. I know this because once upon a time I was a teenager who needed healing, and it was books that saved me.
*Malaika Wa Azania is an award-winning essayist and the bestselling author of Memoirs of a Born Free: Reflections on the Rainbow Nation
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