By Zubeida Jaffer
Modderdam High School in Bonteheuwel collected one thousand books on Saturday 28 May 2022 when they organized a library book fair at the school and made one book the entrance fee. Some attendees ranging from learners, educators, guests, and other education administrators surprised them and brought stacks of books that were piled up behind the registration table.
A polite young man in Grade 10, neatly attired in his school uniform, greeted us at the door and asked us to register. When Xolisa Hlathi handed me my name badge, he smiled broadly, stretched out his hand to shake mine and said: “This is the first time I have ever met a writer.” I just had to oblige despite Covid protocols and shake his hand firmly making sure that I sanitized afterwards on my way into the hall.
Books were on display on both sides of the corridor leading into the hall spread with black plastic chairs. On the stage there were four fancy white bucket chairs for the speakers against a backdrop of a banner proudly announcing Modderdam Library Book Fair with the logos of a variety of sponsors on display.
Props on loan from the Cape Carnival decorated the entrance to the school and were arranged flush against the back wall creating a festive atmosphere. Before the programme of speakers started, I wandered through the side door and into a space stretching from the open quad to the adjacent corridor where members of the community were selling pies, samoosas, cakes, mince curry and sausage rolls laced with braised onions. Clothes and plants were also on sale. On the far side of the quad was a small stage where rappers would perform against a backdrop of a large mural with the slogan: “Readers become leaders.”
Some learners were dressed up in fancy dress adding to the festivities. Chess sets were laid out on small table ready for learners to play.
There were two outstanding highlights of the day. When poet and writer Dr Diana Ferrus took the stage and told the story of how her poem had helped to bring home the remains of Saartjie Baartman, a Khoi young woman, in 2002 she received several standing ovations. Saartjie Baartman was enticed to France in 1814 and then paraded in public. She died there within a year. “When she died, at age 25, they made a plaster cast of her body, then dissected her, took out her brain and genitalia and put it in formalin,” she said. “Then they wrote a book about how her brain, private parts, hair, breasts showed that she was not fully human but as Darwin would say, ‘the missing link between human and ape.’ What they said about her, they were saying about us.”
The second highlight was towards the end of the afternoon when the learners sat in a large circle around the hall, creating an intimate space for a Grade 8 couple to display their ballroom dancing skills. I did not personally witness this because I had another commitment, but it was brought to my attention and confirmed. The learners had whipped out their cellphones in ‘delight as the couple glided around the floor. “The adults were just standing in awe in the background,” said human rights activist, Fatiema Haron Masoet. “They danced with talent and poise lifting themselves beyond their circumstances. They appeared after a rapper performed on the stage who was also outstanding. This talent should be nurtured. They can become rising stars,” she said.
Other speakers included University of Johannesburg’s academic and writer Professor Farid Essack, University of Stellenbosch’s academic and writer, Dr Omar Esau, the former principal of the school, Desmond Snayer, author of four books popular amongst learners, Yusuf Daniels, and myself whom I describe as a journalist, author and activist.
The principal, Mrs Rhona Rayray-Wanza said the excitement still lingered on Monday amongst teachers and learners. “We had to carry all the books to the library, and I could not help getting involved myself,” she said. “I was unsure what the response would be but after Saturday, I have realized that hope is alive.
“I saw for myself that it is not true that kids don’t want to read. It’s important to create a space where learners can engage with books and dream big,” she said.
The driving force behind this initiative was the school’s department head of Science and Maths, Adnaan Adams who won the Kader Asmal Excellence Award in 2021. The award recognised a teacher who was an educational activist for social justice and who led by example. “I started doing the work of restoring our library during Covid,” he said. I do it for the love of reading, to stimulate thinking, and create conditions for our youth to grow and develop,” he said.
The existing library will be renovated and will include a Research section, Printing, photocopying facility, and workshop space for entrepreneurs.
Soraya Salie, the head of a voluntary development group, the Bonteheuwel Walking Ladies, has lived in Bonteheuwel for over 60 years and summed up the community response. “Modderdam High School, you made history today,” she said. “We are humbly proud to say that we live in our beautiful, bountiful, blessed Bonteheuwel.
“What a proud moment for us.
3 June 2022