My niece Madison and Mtuseni’s sister Bongeka are the same age. This past January, when I was loading him up with activities for the summer break, I told Mtuseni to bring home some books from the library for Bongeka. Because that’s what kids do on vacation. Mtuseni didn’t even understand how the library worked; he thought it cost money. The kids’ public K-12 school, where Mtuseni attended, doesn’t have a library.
His LOL text reply to my suggestion was, “Buddy, she can’t read.”
I was surprised. I knew she would start third grade in February — and I wasn’t telling him to bring her War and Peace — but I certainly expected Bongeka to be able to read age-appropriate books. “Well, then that’s the point,” I said. “Read to her and to Musa. Bring home new books every week. Having books at home will help them read better.”
He begged off, more interested in getting books for himself — which is okay since he’s my focus at this point. He found a book called The Good Thief. I grabbed a copy from my town library and read it and we discussed it. It was an entertaining story and fun to share something like that together. But the kids have never benefited from Mtuseni’s library card.
Last week I was visiting my sister and my niece had received the entire Harry Potter set for her birthday. She started reading in the middle of May; a month later she is halfway through the fourth book! That’s not only stunning… it’s almost freakish. She just finished third grade. You could pump iron with some of those books. Last summer she read the entire Little House series, started by my gift of the first book. I loved those books as a kid, and still remember the Wilder family’s adventures during The Long Winter.
When I visited Mtuseni’s family in February, Bongeka reminded me of Madison: both pretty and sweet and into jewelry and pink. But my sister was a teacher, and Madison was read to every night since the day she was born. And her school has a library, and the town does as well. Now she’s reading 700-page epics by flashlight under the covers. And she has Charlotte’s Web and another book set on deck.
By contrast, there are no books in Mtuseni’s house; there is no money for “extras” like that. Mtuseni is too busy with college to get books at the downtown library for the kids, and hasn’t seemed to realize how helpful it would be. And mom is illiterate; she can’t read to her children and doesn’t grasp the value — or the joy — of regular exposure to books. When I told Mtuseni to look into a government adult literacy program for his mom, he said “there’s no time.”
I’m not sure how Mtuseni can read — and write — so well. He has an innate intelligence and hunger for knowledge that always impresses me. I hope Bongeka has something similar and can manage to catch up.
But for now, Madison is traveling to different worlds every night and setting a course for long-term success. And Bongeka lives in a small world of poverty, her path and future already limited. For lacks of books.
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