Anything is possible at the Underground Library

Thuletho Zwane
First published in the Mail & Guardian

It’s school holidays but children in Mohlakeng, a township near Randfontein on the West Rand, are making their way to number 2225 Moroka Street with their school bags.

More than 30 children enter Neo Mathetsa’s small yard – also referred to as “the house opposite the community swimming pool” – and head to the back room that is known as the Underground Library. They place their bags on the cement floor outside the one-room-house-cum-library-cum-performance-stage and stand in a circle to do vocal exercises and play word games.

Video – Underground Library: ‘Better than school’

Mathetsa started the library after the Mohlakeng residents burned down municipal buildings during service delivery protests earlier this year. The fire, meant to raze the municipal offices, spread to the next building and both the library and the maternity clinic were destroyed.

Mathetsa (26) and 11 others, who call themselves the Mohlakeng Youth Movement, decided to collect books to counter the weak reading culture in the township. They used municipal bins to transport books collected from churches, homes and schools.

“Yoh! That was a long time ago. We used to have to beg kids to come to the library. Most would just go to the swimming pool across the road. But now [since the launch] they just come, and some of them are brought by their parents,” said Mathetsa.

Library launch
The Underground Library was launched last month, attended by more than 400 children and their parents. Mathetsa said the exposure the project received from the Mail & Guardian and other local and international media houses helped earn the parents’ trust.

One such parent is 35-year-old Ntswaki Skhenjani. When she took her son, Itumeleng (10), to the Underground Library, she thought he was lazy, had no interest in school and only wanted to play with his friends.

She said she would help him with his homework but Itumeleng would quickly lose interest. “He struggles to read. He is easily distracted. He is naughty. He needs to concentrate. When I show him something, he can read it now but quickly loses concentration. Then, immediately after, he has forgotten the words.”

Itumeleng’s teachers put his reading problems down to naughtiness and laziness. So Skhenjani brought her son to the library, a tiny room with precast walls and a corrugated iron ceiling, tucked behind Mathetsa’s mother’s four-room house. She believed this was the best place for him to learn, “even better than at school because [at school] there are over 100 kids in one class and teachers do not have the time, or patience, to give one child attention”.

Que Matabane, an arts and culture co-ordinator at a township school, said when Itumeleng first came to the Underground Library last Monday, he could not read and would not take part in activities.

School holidays
Pupils usually arrive at the library just before midday; they attend every day during their school holidays. The children play word games and have voice training before performing their mini-plays – most of which they write themselves under Mathetsa and Matabane’s supervision.

They start with a popular rhyme: “Betty bought a bit of butter but the butter Betty bought was bitter, so Betty bought a better butter to make the bitter butter better.”

Ntswaki Skhenjani says the library changed her son’s life. (Gustav Butlex, M&G)

When Itumeleng’s turn came, he could only say: “Betty bought a b…” before running from the circle. The children asked him to return and mouthed the words with him. This time he managed: “Betty bought a bit of butter but?…” and then shut down.

“He is so much better now,” Matabane said. “When he first started, he would run away and hide every time it was his turn. At least he now takes part in the activities.”

Matabane believes Itumeleng has a learning disability, though this has not been diagnosed by specialists. Even though Itumeleng is in grade four, he does not know the alphabet, but they are patient with him and are teaching him. He said other children were also teaching him how to read and, because no one laughs at him, he has improved in the four days he has attended the library.

Book reports
“It is because of children like Itumeleng that we [the Underground Library] have started the book-a-week initiative. We take books from the library and give them to children at [township] schools, and we ask them to read them and then write a report on the book,” said Matabane.

They started this initiative because they realised most children could not read or write at the required level but were being pushed to higher grades because schools did not want to have too many children repeating grades.

Though the Underground Library focuses mainly on literacy, the performing arts are important to the overall development of the children.

Mathetsa said that performing plays helped them express themselves and increased their confidence levels.

Two years ago Lesego Kgokong (11) started taking part in performing arts in the township. When asked to introduce herself, she places her hand in front of her face to hide and shies away. But when she recites a poem or takes on a character, she can speak in front of large crowds.

Skhenjani said that was the only thing she wanted for her son, Itumeleng. “If I could see him in front of a crowd, confident and able to read, without forgetting, I would be so grateful, so grateful.”

Space issue
Space is becoming a problem for the Underground Library as more books are donated and more children hear about it. Mathetsa, too, has very little space in the one-room house.

Wellness4Life Foundation, a nongovernmental organisation that works with township residents and teaches wellness and health, donated three containers to be used as an office, library and storage space.

Library member Smanga Mthathi said they had met the executive mayor of the West Rand, Mpho Nawa, to discuss the municipality making land available so that the shipping containers and the Underground Library can find a new home.

Nawa said his office has asked the Gauteng department of education whether the library could use vacant space at one of Mohlakeng’s township schools. “I can confirm that Phandulwazi [Primary School] will be the place that will house the Underground Library.”

He said discussions with the school’s principal and governing body were almost complete and that the municipality would donate another shipping container to the project.

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