Author William Gumede reads his latest book to a rapt audience in Johannesburg,… (Leon Sadiki, Gallo Images…)
Reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa — The worst thing about growing up a bookworm in a South African squatter camp wasn't the dearth of books.
Reading was "un-African," William Gumede remembers. It wasn't manly, like sports or kite-flying. So if you did get your hands on a book, you'd better have a good place to hide it, or you'd get a beating and see your book ripped up.
The day he heard that a mobile library was coming to a nearby township in Eastern Cape province, he and a friend walked miles to see it, and the library card he was given changed his life.
"It opened another world for me, a world running parallel to my own world," says Gumede, 41. "I read about boys my age doing all kinds of things in other parts of the world. It broadened my horizons."
But every time he went to the library, his book carefully hidden in a plastic shopping bag, he had to brave the gangs of boys he'd meet along the way.
"To be seen with a book was to be seen as sissy, so I had many fights. I remember very clearly, one of the books got torn. It was one of the boys three years older than me. He said: 'Why have you got a book? What's wrong with you?' Five or six others tried to grab the book, and in the struggle a page was torn out."
Today, Gumede is a prominent political biographer who recently began writing children's books. He is part of a chorus of writers and educators who are wondering how South Africa can attain its dream of a successful multiracial democracy if great swaths of the population don't read books.
Seventeen years after Nelson Mandela's election as South Africa's first black president ended a racist education system, reading still hasn't caught on in squatter camps and townships.
"Reading isn't cool," Gumede said. "The problem is that broadly in South Africa, we don't have a reading culture. One sad post-apartheid phenomenon is that people don't value books or ideas."
The nation's two most prominent politicians, President Jacob Zuma and the head of the ruling African National Congress youth league, Julius Malema, are both badly educated and poorly read.
"People do look at Jacob Zuma and Julius Malema, who have done well without reading widely or being educated," Gumede said. "So people say, 'Why should I do it, what's in it for me?' Instead, all you have to do is to join the ANC."
Jean Williams of Biblionef, a charity that distributes thousands of free books to schools around South Africa, said poverty has played a role in discouraging reading: "If you have to decide whether to buy a book or a loaf of bread for your children, you'll choose bread."
But Williams says the problem is rooted in the culture as well. Just as when Gumede was a boy, books are still seen as uncool. Williams says many parents do not read to their children or keep books in the house.
Many children read only when they go to school, and they associate books with study and work, not pleasure, she said. Donated books commonly go unread. "I often come to schools and find the box of books is still there, unopened."
Colleen Whitfield, children's books manager at the Exclusive Books chain, said many organizations are working to get books to children in rural communities.
She said that the lack of a reading culture is a major problem for the country. "During apartheid a lot of people were denied access to reading, and I think that is something that will impact for generations to come."
When Gumede decided to write a children's book, publishers told him there was no market. People asked him when he was going to get back to "serious" writing.
Like most of his peers, Gumede was raised by his mother. With no paternal role model, he had to discover for himself what being a father meant. He reads bedtime stories to his sons, now ages 9, 7 and 5, and just as his mother used to tell him and his siblings the stories of her childhood, he tells his sons the stories of his life.
One of the stories became his first children's book, "A Kite's Flight," about a South African township boy named Andile who makes a kite with his father. The kite flies, breaks free and swoops over some of the great sights of Africa, including Victoria Falls, Lake Victoria and Mt. Kilimanjaro, before hooking briefly onto a pyramid and then descending onto a North African beach, where a boy named Ahmad finds it and repairs it with his father.
"When I was little, flying kites was always one of the escapes: making a kite and flying it. I used to wonder, when it flew up to the sky, which other countries and other parts of Africa it would fly to. I'd always make the biggest kite in the township. Being able to do that, I stood out amongst the township kids."