Entries from Natalia’s Journal during her stay at Nkosi’s Haven, Johannesburg, South Africa in 2010
I took out 6 big plastic bags with garbage from the library. Garbage bins were at the gates, so I carried them down the hill under curious looks of the Nkosi’s Haven residents. Well, now the hardest part is done, and I am shaping the library’s “place” and “space” in a child friendly way.
In the afternoon, I was helping some kids with their homework. Most of them really struggle with their studies and their reading and writing skills are far below their age.
My favourite part of the day is when I do reading, especially when I read aloud to a small group of young kids. When turning pages and showing them pictures, I see these faces with wide open eyes absorbing the story… Children at Nkosi’s Haven are the most responsive and grateful young listeners I have ever met.
In the afternoon, cleaning and shelving again. This is a challenge since all books are mixed up and covered with a thick layer of dust and dead flies. I was sadly surprised with what people donate sometimes. When you see in the place like this 20 volumes of Britannica Yearbook from 1960-1970s or outdated books on science, geography, history, and especially health care, you doubt the generosity of donors.
A funny episode happened today. I started reading a book to Isa, a 6 year old boy, when I realized that he did not speak English. He spoke one of the Africans languages and was not even able to tell me which one. So, it worked this way: I would read a page and then he would tell me something looking at the pictures. It looked like he was making up his own story based on pictures because he did not understand what I read. We read Little Red Riding Hood this way. I wonder how his story differed from the original one.
I have a group of kids who come to the library every day thus choosing library over other places where they can spend their spare time, such as the leisure room, the playground for young kids, and the sports field for older kids. Those who come to the library come to read, to draw or to do a puzzle.
I bought more picture books with African folktales last week and I wondered if anybody would notice these new books on the shelves. Jester did, and he brought them to me, and we read about the lucky leopard and the clever little jackal, and we learned an African version of how the giraffe became so tall and how the zebra got her stripes.
At the end of the day, two of us were sitting in the library, a 6 year old: Junior and I. He is the only one child here who can read at the age of 6, and he reads well. He is also very good in math. I call him a “reading machine.” He is obsessed with the reading process itself and usually reads aloud and nonstop – one book after another. I asked him today, “Why do you love books, Junior?” – “I love to read.” “What do you feel when you read?” – “I feel happy.” He could not have found the better answer.
I did my first bibliotherapy session on HIV with kids. I started with a small group of 7-8 year old children today and the results exceeded all my expectations. The session included two main components – reading picture books on HIV/AIDS and teaching basic facts about the disease, including transmission and prevention. All the kids in a group had HIV-positive mothers, so the most challenging part was to tell the truth without escalating their fears. I felt that I found this balance. Although I did not skip the fact that there is no treatment from AIDS and that people with AIDS die, I stressed a few times that one can live for many years with HIV if she or he takes medication, and that doctors work hard on finding treatment for AIDS. My drawing of a battle between an HIV virus and white blood cells made sense to them, and at the end they laughed listening to a story about a little boy Jimmy who thought that he had the “Egg Virus” after misinterpreting a conversation between his mom and grandmother.
In the afternoon, I was reading to Felicia when she suddenly fell asleep with her head in my lap. She spent last week in a sick bay and still was not feeling well. I put my hand on her tiny back (at 6 she looks like a 4 year old) and could feel all these dreadful sounds coming from her chest (she has HIV and TB). It was a painful illustration to my talk about the disease this morning.
And now is a time for my “solo performance.” I am sitting on the table and reading book after book that my young patrons would pick up from the shelves. Two rows of wide open eyes and ears “absorbed” today The Three Pigs and the Wolf, The Ugly Duckling, and The Tin Soldier – laughing at the wolf who burnt his tail in a chimney, showing compassion for the lonely duckling rejected by a duck family, and following a tin soldier through his adventures.
hat happened next was one of the most moving moments I had during my stay here. When all the kids left for lunch, Jester came to me, took out a chocolate bar from his pocket and said, “This is for you.” I do not need to describe here what I felt.
This is my second week of the HIV sessions with kids. I was glad to see that most of the kids were able to answer the questions based on the material from last week. This time the topic was transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS. During a group discussion that lasted more than one hour, three ten-year-old boys were asking questions about infected blood and unprotected sex covering a broad variety of scenarios that their imagination could project. These questions revealed their fears of being infected, which is rooted in lack of sex education and open discussion on AIDS. I was moved when one of the boys, Michael, said to me at the end, “Thank you for answering our questions.”
In the evening, I was watching soccer in the leisure room, while the same three boys with whom we had this hot discussion on sex earlier that day were watching Cinderella.
After a sudden death of Mbali’s baby, I conducted a bibliotherapy session on death with women. The session was very emotional. Although most women were very critical about Mbali (she was not a good mother due to her young age), they showed compassion for her loss. They celebrated a short life of a little Kgomotso and accepted her death. At the end, I read aloud The Fall of Freddie the Leaf, by Leo Buscaglia – a beautiful story on life and death for all ages. It was one of the books on death that I brought to this place. It is difficult to describe what a powerful and emotional moment this book created at this particular place and time. This was a moment of consoling power of a book – Bibliotherapy in action.
A five-year-old, Siyabongo came to me with a piece of paper where he put his name and asked me to write “Siyabongo is taking books from the library” to take this to his mom Precious (she is actually his caregiver since he came to Nkosi’s Haven as an orphan). I was struck by his intention to get approval from his mom for spending time in the library. He likes this place. He knows that this is a good place to be in.
In the afternoon, I did the HIV session with a group of teen boys. Once again, they said that they never had sex education or HIV awareness sessions at school or here, at Nkosi’s Haven. They thought that HIV and AIDS were two different diseases. Their questions revealed lack of basic knowledge about AIDS, including the ways the HIV virus can be transmitted. I was pleased when one of the boys asked to borrow Our Stories, Our Songs: African Children Talk about AIDS, a book by Deborah Ellis – a collection of stories told by children in Sub-Saharan Africa.
When I watch Jester during our reading sessions, I can see him “wandering” inside the story as if he was listening from there. I ask him, “Jester, do you want to get inside the book to be with all these animals?” He says, “Yes.” In a moment like this, you understand that “book as escape” is more than an elaborate metaphor; it is a reality (or another dimension of this reality) brought to life by a good book. I am so happy for Jester, Junior, Gugu and other “readers” because they have already discovered this other dimension, the world of books – something permanent, stable and safe. Taking into account uncertainty and instability of their real lives with inevitable losses and hardships, this discovery is invaluable.
My conversation with little Gugu, my good friend, later during the day was one of the best rewards for my work. She said while we were walking hand in hand heading to the library, “Natalia, you remember you were teaching us about HIV? I told my auntie what you were teaching. I told her that if somebody has HIV, she should not be scared of him. She can touch and hug him” (Gugu is an 8 year old orphan, HIV positive).